'Why doesn't Wilton shop Wilton?'

Wilton Gap closed its doors on July 26, adding it to a list of businesses no longer operating in a town that CNN Money magazine once named a “best place to live,” ranking it the 16th top earner in the nation in 2007.
URA the Spa, Yogapata, Vintage Fine Wines, Frock & Frill, Luca’s and the Steven Mancini Salon are gone, with new businesses taking their places.
Happy Hands Art & Pottery, Green Maid Organics, End Grain Woodworks, CoCo Nails, Illuminations Hair Salon and Café Ruche settled in Wilton in the last year.
Cactus Rose Restaurant & Tequila Bar and Prime Tutoring recently reopened. (Cactus Rose had closed for several months because of storm damage.)
JoyRide Cycling Studio of Ridgefield, Westport and Darien (and Texas) opened a location in Wilton on July 18.
But just leasing commercial space does not guarantee success. These new ventures will have to fight to survive, especially in the beginning when debuts are made and brands are either recognized or forgotten.

An ideal place

Wilton has several features that make it economically desirable, namely:

  • It is situated along a United States highway: Route 7.

  • It is 48 miles from midtown Manhattan, 67 from Hartford and 166 from Boston.

  • On average, residents of Wilton make more money than do the rest of the nation, with a median household income of $161,906 versus $52,250, according to the Connecticut Economic Resource Center. This implies people here can spend — and therefore shop — more than the average person.

So why is it that some businesses venturing in Wilton fail?

Owners speak

When a business fails, it is natural to assume it was not able to make ends meet. Some tenants in Wilton Center are having a difficult time, but are rent rates the source of their struggle?
According to Ann Nash, co-owner of Signature Style and board member of the Wilton Chamber of Commerce, who said “it’s tough” to sell in Wilton, the answer is no.
“I think the rent is fair. The rates are lower here than they are in Ridgefield. The problem is corporate management. Just down the road, the rent is much higher.”
She was referring to the Wilton River Park Shopping Center at 5 River Road, which is owned by Kimco Realty Corporation, a publicly traded real estate investment trust headquartered in New Hyde Park, N.Y.
Felix Escobar, owner of Tom-E-Toes Restaurant & Pizza in the plaza, agreed with Nash.
“Our rent is $45 per square foot per year. It’s very expensive. Right now, the management is a big corporation (Kimco); they don’t care about tenants,” he said.
Rent at $45 per square foot is more than double the national average of lease rates in strip centers, reported by the Wall Street Journal to be $19.51 per square foot in 2014.
According to David Bujnicki, vice president of investor relations and communications at Kimco Realty, the rent at Wilton River Park Shopping Center is fair and most of the tenants there have been successful.
“Kimco’s entire portfolio is currently 96% occupied (and nearly 98% in the Northeast) which could not be achieved if we were charging unfair, above-market rental rates,” he said. “Many factors determine an agreed upon rental rate such as property taxes, utilities and common maintenance charges, and a buildout of the tenant space. Ultimately, the market dictates the appropriate rental rate and Wilton River Shopping Center is deemed to have market level rents for its tenants.”
“We always welcome and encourage any of our tenants to discuss with us ways to drive more customer traffic to the properties and create a more welcoming environment for customers,” Bujnicki added. “This includes promotional events at our centers working in conjunction with the local community and municipality.”
Melissa Caruso, owner of Renaissance Beauty in Wilton Center, disagrees.
“Eventually, places like Kimco are going to own Wilton,” said Caruso. “If they keep taking control out of the hands of small business owners, the Wilton Historical Society’s biggest fear will come true.” She was implying that Wilton would be industrialized.
While her business is outside of Kimco’s territory, Caruso has seen several of her friends squeezed out by the corporation, she said.
But Caruso, a triple net lessee, does not consider Renaissance Beauty to be safe, Kimco or no Kimco. She feels that although private landlords might not charge as much as corporate ones, they lack the motivation necessary to keep their tenants.
“What is the impetus,” she said, “for my landlord to keep me in this building when he wants to retire? They want us to fail. When we fail, they keep our money and then the next one comes in. It’s either the next one, or Kimco.”
Although Caruso claims landlords are hindering the town’s economic development, she believes there is more at play with Wilton’s failed businesses than just management.
“Why doesn’t Wilton shop Wilton?” she asked rhetorically.
“They widened Route 7 up to Danbury and down to Westport [Road], and now commuters speed past Wilton, which has a number of shops on that road, without even noticing it,” Caruso said.
She said speeding is a problem in Wilton Center, too, a problem that is avoided in Ridgefield.
“In Ridgefield,” she said, “they put two traffic lights on Main Street. Now, when people stop there, they look left and right and see signs and businesses. That doesn’t happen in our center. People are driving 25 mph from stop sign to stop sign without seeing anything.”
Caruso also felt cellphone use keeps passersby from being aware of their surroundings.
“People walk around with their heads buried in their phones,” she said. “How are they supposed to see our signs if they don’t even come up for air?”

More signs, more business?

Signage regulations for the general business district (GBD) and the Wilton Center district (WC) dictate that a maximum of two signs are to be allowed per business: One freestanding ground sign and one projecting wall sign, or, in the case of movie theaters, auditoriums and stage theaters, one marquee and poster sign not to exceed the number of screens or stages.
In other words, a business has two chances to catch a passing consumer’s attention.
Caruso agreed that limiting sign regulations is a major contributor to the low turnout in Wilton Center, expressing concern that the two-sign rule is hindering customers from finding parking, which she said is ample but not immediately visible from River Road.
She said she’d rather have a blue and white Wilton-style sign that says “Ample parking in the back” than no sign at all.
“I’d be happy to adopt standardized signage — we just need to do it. We need to learn to integrate history and commerce so that we can move forward and everybody can profit,” Caruso said.

Economic stimulus measures

The town has several plans in the works aimed at creating jobs and promoting economic growth.
One is the sidewalk restoration and improvement project. Town officials hope better-looking, safer sidewalks in Wilton Center will encourage shopping and attract new businesses.
The Municipal Sculpture Program, begun last year, is another attempt at improving the aesthetic of Wilton Center. As of today, the program has resulted in two sculptures on display.
The Wilton Chamber of Commerce sponsors many events, including the fourth annual Wilton Street Fair and Sidewalk Sale on July 18.
The Norwalk River Valley Trail will be a major bonus to those weighing the benefits of Wilton as a potential place of business, according to Peg Koellmer, president-elect of the Mid-Fairfield Association of Realtors.
The Economic Development Commission recently launched its website at WiltonEDC.org. According to a press release it “has been designed for businesses to use as a resource when considering a move to or an expansion in Wilton.”