EDC survey shows strengths and weaknesses

Wilton’s Economic Development Commission (EDC) presented “part one” of its findings from a study of local businesses and residential real estate at the June 20 meeting of the Board of Selectmen.

“The entire packet included a fairly meaty section of data which related to expenses, revenue, and financial information,” Commission Vice Chair Vivian Lee-Shuie said. “We felt it was a little bit too deep at this point, so we’ve broken it into two sections.”

“Today we’re going to discuss primarily the interviews and the surveys we conducted,” she said.

Lee-Shuie said the survey was conducted under the banner of the EDC, but that most of the work was performed by community volunteers. They were John Kelly of Berkeley Research Group, John DiCenzo of Halstead Property, Diane DeWitt of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices, and Bert Schefers of Abbey Road Associates.

Word of the survey, Lee-Shuie said, was “disseminated through multiple channels.” She said 28 businesses and 132 real estate agents responded. The findings are as follows. Wilton’s “strengths” include:

  • “There is a very strong sense of community and collaboration. Wilton residents and business owners have a tremendous amount of pride in their community and town.

  • The town enjoys a rare balance of a tax- and job-supporting commercial business district with greater spaciousness of living at 600 persons per square mile.

  • There is a good balance of rural space and semi-urban culture/things to do, with fairly easy access to urban and cultural centers.

  • Highly educated and fully employed community among the youngest in Fairfield County, and with the greatest rate of employment. (The median age is 42.)

  • Strong school system, real and perceived. College matriculation rate leads the county. Graduation rate near the top.

  • Town center is off main driving strip, making the center less prone to heavy traffic than neighboring communities. (Shuie said this is “both a strength and a weakness.”)

  • Town’s desirability appears to be in good balance by both qualitative (survey response) and quantitative (population growth rate) measures.”

The town’s weaknesses, according to the EDC, are listed here.

  • “Town center not considered a destination shopping location.

    • Town center businesses are concentrated in just a few commoditized categories: banks, pizzerias, nail salons.

    • Structure is lacking in creative or traditional zoning, aesthetics or businesses as compared to neighboring towns. Organic growth has led to a disjointed appearance.

    • There is a perception of excess vacancy rates.

    • Due to the fact that the center is off the main driving strip (Route 7), drive-by traffic is limited.

  • Some businesses suggest the town could demonstrate better common sense and/or communication in its regulations and planning decisions.

  • There is a lack of an advocate or centralized entity that can assist businesses.

  • Lack of infrastructure (sewer, water, gas) in some areas inhibits further business development.

  • Tax burden, both perceived and real, is significant.

  • Extended period of home value stagnation may deter new investors from entering into the community.”

Lee-Shuie outlined some short- and long-term goals the town could pursue to improve its business climate.

  • “Initiate broader collaboration across town entities, including but not limited to the Chamber of Commerce, Board of Education, other commissions, businesses and residents to do the following:

    • Perform a marketing assessment to focus on appropriate themes on which Wilton can be branded.

    • Expand “Rapid Response Team” to assist businesses by being single point of contact for regulatory issues and questions. This team should include representative members of various commissions including the EDC and Planning and Zoning.

  • Engage a part-time resource to assist with EDC and town coordination. This resource could be the core resource staffing the Rapid Response Team.

  • Identify state-level resources that can help support local businesses.”

The EDC’s long-term recommendations follow here.

  • “Perform selective zoning reviews and initiate discussion around zoning changes, including but not limited to:

    • Benchmark zoning regulations in Central Business District of neighboring, competing towns, with the intention of creating proactive zoning changes where needed.

    • Parking assessments and studies.

    • Re-initiate signage study, engaging members of the community and business owners.

  • Explore areas for opportunistic growth, such as the expansion of core infrastructure within Wilton. This would need to include an assessment of ways in which to fund these projects via grants, partnerships and bonding.

  • More active outreach to the local business community and commercial property owners to communicate recent changes, proposals to existing infrastructure, town laws and regulations.

  • Initiate a discussion to develop a strategy related to issues and amenities for the aging population who no longer have children within the school system.”

Selectmen will schedule a presentation of part two of the Economic Development Commission’s study at an upcoming meeting. The results will be posted soon on WiltonCT.org and WiltonEDC.org.