The Wilton small business scene has taken a recent stumble, as news spread that several small businesses are either closing or moving out of town. Emails on Friday, May 8 from the Steven Mancini salon announcing they’ll be moving from Wilton to Westport were followed by emails yesterday from URA the Spa that they were closing. That follows closing announcements just two weeks ago from Frock & Frill and Yogapata, hot on the heels of Vintage Fine Wines closing and Witchypoo shuttering their brick and mortar store in December.

Sure, there have been some new openings recently–Happy Hands Pottery opened at 5 River Rd. within the last two weeks, and Cafe Ruche has been steadily building a following and is filling tables as well as scoring prime catering gigs since their debut in December. Just as encouraging is the news that Georgetown Saloon will soon reopen again, sometime this summer. And Cactus Rose reopened at the beginning of May after surviving a four-month closure due to water damage and renovations.

But one new business opening for every two closings is a move in the wrong direction for Wilton.

Here are some frequently asked questions:

  • Is it a matter of how much Wilton residents shop and patronize local businesses?
  • Is it a question of support–how much or how little–some businesses think they get from town officials or the Chamber of Commerce, with regard to issues like signage and promotion?
  • Does Wilton somehow squander the opportunity of all those potential customers driving up and down Rte. 7?
  • Is our town layout a problem, especially with very limited parking?
  • Are rents too high and are landlords inflexible with new or smaller businesses?
  • Are business owners not doing enough due diligence in making sure their business model is strong enough to survive and afford to do business here?
  • Is it a self-perpetuating problem–with more and more “For Rent” signs popping up all over, does it make the town look like it’s dying?

The Perspective from the Business that’s Closing

Heather Bova is the owner of URA the Spa. Her decision to close the business was made for several reasons–primarily she says, when a more stable and consistent opportunity for a corporate position came along, she made the choice as a single mom supporting two kids. But economics played a role for sure, and she looked both within and without.

“Do I wish that I had more support from the town, yes, of course I do. At the same time, it take it upon myself because I am so introspective–what did I not do well enough? I always look at myself and think, ‘What could I have done differently? Could I have done better,?’ Yes I could’ve. Could have the town supported me better, absolutely.”

She acknowledged that the market can be a tough one, especially with competition.

“There are a lot of spas doing what we do in a 10-mile and 5-mile vicinity. I take it upon myself that I wasn’t able to differentiate myself enough. But I know that the people who came to the spa loved it, and it was beautiful and it was this beautiful oasis. There were a lot of things that I’m proud of that I was able to accomplish, but I took a huge risk, and I am okay with that. I’m okay with things not working out the way I wanted them to.”

Bova feels some of the difficulty comes being located in CT, where the economy has had a tougher recovery time.

“I just got back from LA, and they are building like mad. There are new shopping centers every where you turn. They are expanding and they are growing and I don’t think that we have that same type of economic boom here. Not only that, here in CT we are hammered with quarterly taxes that are insane making it hard for new small businesses to start.”

And truthfully, although she had Wilton clients, more of her client base was from elsewhere.

“Weston was probably more supportive than Wilton to be completely honest with you. I had a really wonderful Weston crowd, but not really from anywhere else. There is an incredible amount of wealth in Wilton, they just didn’t come to my spa.”

Bova said she did find a lot of support from the Chamber of Commerce. “I think they do the best they can but I don’t blame them, I think it’s the economic environment more than anything else.” She does say that the issue of restrictive signage regulations from her point of view made it harder.

“They are doing these things to maintain a small town image, they don’t want for Wilton to become a big city. I understand that and that’s fine if the town was staying in its town to do its own business. When you are on Rte. 7, you depend on signage a great deal for the existence and sustenance of your business.”

URA will stay open until June 30. They will be selling the remainder of their products at 50-percent off (some restrictions).

The Perspective from the Chamber of Commerce

Ann Nash is on the executive board of the Wilton Chamber of Commerce.  She also has the perspective as the owner of a retail store, Signature Style. As the majority of  Chamber members are service providers rather than retailers, her voice is highly respected in town.

She says comparing Wilton to towns like New Canaan, Darien, Ridgefield or Westport is like comparing apples to oranges, for several reasons.

“Wilton is not set up like the other towns with one main downtown street, where you can walk. And the town green is private property–it’s not owned by the town,” she says, saying effective planning wasn’t done a long time ago, and there’s no place to put adequate parking now, given how the town has developed over the years.

“We would love to do the thing that New Canaan does, where they shut off part of the road, and people eat dinner and stroll. But where in Wilton would you do that? No restaurant wants to give up parking on Friday or Saturday night. In New Canaan they have that perfect street on the angle.”

The Chamber leaders have thought of many of the same ideas that some residents have suggested to attract people to Wilton to spend money–outdoor movie nights, music festivals, and more–but many are costly ideas with few practical ways to execute them.

“It comes down to that our town isn’t just set up the way other towns are. We’d love to have more events, like movie nights [in Wilton Center], I want all these things too. But where do we do them and who pays for them all? We can’t if people don’t come and shop with us.”

That’s something that other business owners in Wilton have said frequently–that Wilton customers don’t spend as much here at home as residents of other towns do where they live.

“People talk a lot about shopping local, and then they don’t. Our customer is the Village Market shopper–somebody who believes in the small town. Some people come in and look, and then buy online.”

Nash sees that as a function of the general economic demographics:  “People in Wilton have to be a little more conservative financially. It’s just the way it is. People in those other towns spend more money without thinking about it. Here they think about it. It’s the reality–we don’t have the same income base that those other towns have.”

She encourages people to get more involved to contribute ideas and pitch in–either for more retailers to become members of the Chamber or for residents to stop in at the Chamber office, which is located at 86 Old Ridgefield Rd., and share any ideas or thoughts they have with director Janeen Leppert.

But Nash does want to correct a misperception–that the Chamber is responsible for more than they actually are. The Chamber functions to represent its members, and most of the businesses that belong to the chamber don’t have a retail presence. Compared to other towns, the number of retail stores in Wilton seem like a “handful–and half those stores, or most of those stores don’t belong to the chamber,” she says.

That factor puts Wilton at a disadvantage against other towns, something that people who compare Wilton to other towns–most notably New Canaan–may not realize, says Nash. In New Canaan, landlords require their tenants, even large chains like The Gap, to be members of the New Canaan Chamber. Additionally, their dues are higher. As a result, that town’s Chamber has more money to run more programs.

As for suggestions to create events that bring in more shoppers from out of town, Nash points out the various events that the Chamber already hosts:  the 5K run, the Halloween parade, the Holiday walk, a Golf outing, the Taste of Wilton, the summer Sidewalk Sale and Street Festival, and the Farmer’s Market, and more.

The Resident Perspective

Conversation sparked on social media and elsewhere around Wilton yesterday, with news of the latest closing. For that piece of the story, click here.

A request for comment from the first selectman, Bill Brennan, was not returned by press time.