Commercial success in jeopardy, town investments are necessary

The packed offices of WIlton’s many commercial buildings may be masking a growing threat to the town’s future success, the Economic Development Commission warns in its latest set of strategic recommendations to the town.

Market trends related to the business sector, the commission says, indicate Wilton has begun to receive increased competition from surrounding business-friendly towns.

Such competition may lead to “our top commercial businesses relocating to other towns, and challenges in attracting new businesses,” the commission writes in a 2014 report to the Board of Selectmen, which was released to The Bulletin this month. The report was compiled over the last two years, since the commission was first launched.

Though Wilton has high commercial occupancy rates relative to the rest of Connecticut, property owner Lee Wilson, of Wilson Properties, said competition is always a threat in densely populated Fairfield County.

“Wilton is in a competitive situation, but we have a lot to offer. From an overall standpoint, the vacancy [rate] in Fairfield County is around 20%, and that’s way above the norm. In that context, all of the towns in this area are in competition,” he said.

In terms of office space, one of the town’s most important offerings, Mr. Wilson noted, is its central location that does not rely on the Merritt Parkway or I-95 as a major transportation artery.

“We have easier access to labor markets in the north and east section of the county,” Mr. Wilson said. Those parts of Fairfield County are generally more affordable than Wilton.

The dysfunction of [the Merritt and 95] is having a definite effect on the ability to attract companies to Stamford,” he added.

Wilton also faces strong retail-sector competition from Westport and New Canaan, where downtown areas are easier to navigate for destination shoppers, Mr. Wilson said. Such areas attract national, trendy retailers like Patagonia.

Though it may struggle to attract big-name shops, Town Planner Bob Nerney says Wilton Center is unusual in its local focus with two large grocery stores, the Village Market and Stop & Shop, and a number of locally owned businesses lining its streets.

“A lot of communities focus on trying to get what they don’t have, rather than paying attention to what they do have,” he said on Monday. “When you walk into a business in Wilton Center, there’s a good chance the person behind the counter knows who you are.”

Lamenting the lack of authority and funding granted to the commission to act on recommendations, the report says in order for Wilton to bring about positive changes in the business sector, residents and leaders must “understand that little progress will be made toward implementing the recommended initiatives and goals to which they relate, unless the community is willing to fund the effort.

“Economic development is one of the few areas of community expenditure that is a true investment — with the expectation that there will be a reasonable return on that investment.”

Basic recommendations

The commission says the management of the town’s economic strategy is too complex for a volunteer commission to properly handle, especially one without funding or charter authority to act on initiatives.

“The most significant action the Town can execute is to create an Office of Economic Development. … The most impactful approach would be to staff this office with a dedicated director (even if part-time) who would have the power and influence to create programs, events, and communications to attract and retain businesses in Wilton,” the report says.

In response to the possibility of commercial decline in Wilton, the commission also compiled a list of suggestions for the town to consider.

The first suggestion is the creation of a website dedicated to economic development in Wilton. So far, this is the only commission initiative that has been approved and funded by the Board of Selectmen, with a website due by the end of December.

The commission also suggests the establishment of a “rapid-response team” to address urgent needs of new and existing businesses, the launch of a “nurturing program” for town leaders to open lines of communication to the business sector, the deployment of a marketing outreach program, and the creation of a strategic, 10-year blueprint for WIlton’s commercially zoned areas.

Cannondale

The suggested commercial blueprint is a highly detailed document calling on the town to approach each commercial sector individually.

The commercial sector with the most urgent needs, according to the report, is Cannondale Village.

“It is the recommendation of the WEDC that the town [reserve] budget funds necessary to hire an expert consultant to evaluate the development of Cannondale.”

The owner of Cannondale Village, Marc Gueron, told The Bulletin last week he is interested in branding the area as a destination for holistic, organic wellness and family dining.

Forza Five Holistic Fitness is one of the newest businesses on the property, and an acupuncturist currently uses the tiny storefront next to the old general store, which Mr. Gueron hopes to convert for use as a family restaurant or pizza parlor. The Schoolhouse is an established, upscale restaurant in Cannondale, in business for several years.

In 2009, Mr. Gueron submitted a plan to construct 24 townhomes behind the property that was eventually quashed by vehement opposition by neighbors, the WEDC says.

“While the WEDC does not have an opinion of the owner’s plan, it does feel the development of Cannondale should not be determined on a piecemeal basis by individual owners.”