Many layers to amping up Wilton’s economy

Adding vitality to Wilton’s business districts, particularly Wilton Center, is not a matter of bringing in more restaurants and retail. It will likely involve looking at and adapting to Wilton’s population in terms of age and occupation.

That was the sense of a conversation between Andy Pforzheimer and David Genovese and the Economic Development Commission on March 14 at Comstock Community Center.

A Darien resident, Genovese is a real estate developer and investor with Baywater Properties. The company owns 195 Danbury Road in Wilton, where there is a surgical center and professional offices. Pforzheimer lives in Wilton and is a former member of the Board of Finance. He is the founder and owner of restaurant chains Barcelona and Bartaco.

They were invited by the commission to offer their insight into how Wilton can make itself more attractive to businesses.

One issue they discussed was transportation. Buildings close to transportation are more valuable than those farther away. A town with a transportation hub near higher education or a health care center will be more attractive.

Both agreed that younger workers do not want a long commute. Wilton benefited when Stamford was home to a number of big business headquarters. But its office vacancy rate, Genovese said, is higher today than it was in the early 90s real estate recession. A Wilton-Stamford commute is OK, but a Wilton-Manhattan commute is too far.

Some problems are beyond Wilton’s scope. Retail, for example, is “imploding” everywhere, Pforzheimer said.

“The regulation of the financial services industry, UBS moving to New York … increased regulations making it harder to be in the financial business, it’s harder to raise hedge fund money,” Genovese said.

“Some would say the whole investment management business is moving from active management to passive management,” with people investing in things like index funds rather than using a manager, he said. “Employment is changing really rapidly.”

Wilton’s geography “is still a problem,” Pforzheimer said. “Build a high-speed Internet backbone, then you give people a reason to live here and base a business here. … If you are working from home a few days a week, that is very compelling.”

Restaurant unfriendly

A few commissioners asked Pforzheimer if he had considered opening a restaurant in Wilton, given that he has one in Westport.

“No,” he said. “I won’t open a restaurant here because it is too weekend-dependent.” In Westport, he said, many people “eat out six nights a week.” Wilton is predominantly families with children, and they are more prone to eat at home or take out during the week.

He also pointed out it is hard for restaurant staff to get here from other towns.

As commissioners pursued the restaurant idea, he said, “Adding restaurants does not change demand or the tax base. Changing population changes demand and tax base.”

He said if Wilton were home to a college campus, “in five years you’d have 1,500 students and teachers. Now let’s have this conversation about restaurants.”

First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice, who sat in on the meeting, told The Bulletin that Wiltonians have to be “realistic about who we are. For some it is difficult to hear Andy Pforzheimer say that we do not have the demographics to support additional restaurants. Yet his statement is consistent with what I hear from other restaurateurs and retail brokers.

“Andy noted to have that demographic, we would need to increase our population of young professionals without children and empty nesters with disposable income. That, of course, would require an increase in transitional housing,” she said.

EDC Chair Vivian Lee-Shiue agreed, saying people should focus on where Wilton “fits in in relation to the towns around it” rather than focusing “on what’s missing.”

Housing, offices

With its two-acre zoning, housing in Wilton is a tough nut to crack. Commissioner Tracy Serpa asked about building condos above retail, particularly in Wilton River Park, where Stop & Shop is.

“To me it’s a perfect place to showcase downtown. It also helps to extend downtown.”

Genovese said that could help. “River Ridge blew out in a not-great housing market because of its proximity to town,” he said.

Discussion about housing was what Lee-Shiue felt resonated the most. Promoting mixed use in the town center and other areas “was a validating concept for us,” she said. “It’s a concept that needs to be explored. We need to think outside the box.” She said this is a good time for the commission to spread this message, with the Plan of Conservation and Development under review, but she acknowledged the commission can only make recommendations.

As for office space, Pforzheimer said the focus should be on people who are here — those over 35 — as opposed to those who are younger.

“A [business] incubator made by someone sick of their commute to New York makes more sense to me than a high-tech incubator,” he said.

Vanderslice agreed that would make sense and said, “Their suggestion to adopt ways to help residents in their mid-40s or older to create opportunities for second careers or new businesses is one that I expect the EDC might choose to pursue.”

Lee-Shiue agreed there are “people who are mid-career who already happen to be here and maybe where we can help facilitate that is getting a second career off the ground with things like the i-Lab for 40-plus, where people can explore ideas and use collaborative work spaces. That’s the type of thing we can start working with.” She added it would require more research since such a step might require zoning changes.

Another effort is to raise Wilton’s profile to potential business opportunities.

“We need to increase our efforts to distribute our marketing materials — two videos and 40 Things —  as neither had seen them, Vanderslice said. She was also pleased to hear Genovese’s “favorable account of his interactions with the land use departments and particularly Town Planner Bob Nerney.” Genovese had said that Wilton was one of the easiest towns he’s worked with, compared to Stamford, which is “very difficult as a smaller and mid-size developer.”

Both men agreed that whatever direction Wilton takes, the town should protect its assets, which they saw as including aquifers, schools, open space, and the Norwalk River Valley Trail.

Lee-Shiue agreed, particularly in light of the fact people are waiting later and later to move from the city to suburbs like Wilton. She said the town needs to push “its schools and open space as big assets.”