Economic Development Commission offers five ideas for town's future

With commercial space filled at 90% of capacity, Wilton’s business atmosphere drives substantial envy in surrounding towns. But as the Wilton Economic Development Commission sees it, the town can still take significant steps to move toward an even better business presence.

At Monday’s Board of Selectmen meeting, the commission presented a draft of a long-awaited report, titled Economic Development Strategic Recommendations.

Since the commission was developed in 2012, it has worked to author a report that would detail a specific economic vision for the town. This process, First Selectman Bill Brennan continually reminded the audience, was “no easy task.”

Michael Lindberg, co-vice chairman of the EDC, presented the majority of his commission’s findings before the board, telling selectmen the commission found consistently similar feedback after meeting with a large variety of executives in the Wilton business community.

As the group met with CEOs and senior executives, and profiled the top-100-job companies, they asked:

• Why did you choose Wilton?

• What makes Wilton a special place to grow a company?

• What can the town of Wilton, and its economic commission, do to help you grow in our town?

“We found very consistent input that came back. Everyone really loved the rural, charming nature of the Wilton community,” Mr. Lindberg said.

More often than not, the commission found business owners were eager to open offices in Wilton because they wanted to live in the town themselves.

Though overall feedback showed Wilton’s business environment to be very healthy, Mr. Lindberg and his team warned the board there are still “clouds over Camelot.”

One major problem the commission regularly noted while compiling the report was the lack of class A office space and other commercial space available in town. Though the group was notably excited about the town’s 90% occupancy rate, that positive characteristic could be a double-edged sword while the town attempts to grow its business community, Mr. Lindberg said.

Improving the arts

Additionally, according to the commission, business owners cited a lack of recreational and cultural opportunities for their employees as a problem in Wilton. One important initiative in combating these concerns, Mr. Lindberg said, was the Norwalk River Valley Trail loop currently being installed to run from Raymond Lane to Gaylord Drive.

All the same, improving the cultural offerings of town is a difficult prospect, the commission said. They offered one strong suggestion after a question was posed by Selectman Dick Dubow about the arts.

Citing the success of the Ridgefield Playhouse, Mr. Lindberg said an important aspect of improving the atmosphere would include opening the Clune Center for public events.

“A common comment that has come up time and time again is that you all, with the Clune Center, have the best performing arts center in the region, if not the state. Opening that to the public could really embellish the town. The key is opening the Clune Center to the community.”

Economic issues

The commission offered “five discrete recommendations” to Wilton’s executive board that had the intent to “nurture and grow existing businesses” and attract new business to town, Mr. Lindberg said.

The first recommendation was for the town to create and maintain a dedicated economic development website in the style created by the towns of Fairfield and Stamford (www.stamfordct.gov/economic-development). An additional tenet of this idea would be for the town to maintain a free, up-to-date listing of available commercial space on the site.

According to Mr. Brennan, the process of creating a website has already begun.

The second “discrete recommendation” of the commission was to establish a “rapid response team” of economic development specialists to interact with new businesses looking to open in Wilton. This response team would be an ad hoc group of residents whose volunteer positions would require them to act as advocates for the town, proactively welcoming businesses to Wilton.

Town Planner Bob Nerney supported this idea.

“Sometimes in the past I have stepped in the role of talking to prospective people looking to come to town,” he said. “Having a committee would give us credibility. It shows that the town is more serious, and that they are more committed to economic growth.”

Citing the success of the C-PACE program, which encourages energy savings among commercial entities, the third recommendation was to “initiate and find a forum for continued communication between economic development and businesses in town.”

Mr. Lindberg said even something as simple as regularly sitting down with business executives over a cup of coffee was an indispensable tool in understanding their concerns about Wilton economics.

Lastly, the commission said the town must “understand what vacant space is available in Wilton,” and design a “holistic blueprint for economic development” that stresses redevelopment priorities.

There were some areas in Wilton the commission felt required extra attention, including the Gilbert & Bennett school, the Gateway Shopping Center, Cannondale Historic District, and the west side of Route 7.