Economic development survey confirms suspicions

The Economic Development Commission is most of the way through reviewing its study of the local business climate and according to the vice chair, responses have largely been as expected, though there were some outliers.

Part of the study was a survey targeting Wilton-based smaller businesses.

“As we go through the survey results, we’re seeing that they did consider other towns,” Vice Chair Vivian Lee-Shuie said at the commission’s May 11 meeting.

“Most people establish businesses in town because they have some sort of connection to Wilton,” Lee-Shuie said. “Most of them establish businesses here because they have family in town, or they grew up in town.”

Lee-Shuie added the survey results revealed that some enterprises chose to set up shop in Wilton because they saw it as a path of least resistance. She called this “surprising.”

“Other people selected Wilton because they felt — and this was a little bit of a surprise to me — that Wilton was easier to work with than some of the other towns,” Lee-Shuie said.

This also took Commissioner John Wilson by surprise. “From an administrative point of view?” he asked.

“From licensing, from administrative — very different than what you would have expected,” Lee-Shuie replied.

“Well I know Darien is brutal. New Canaan is tough, but Darien and Westport are two of the toughest,” said Wilson.

In addition to its survey of Wilton-based businesses, the Economic Development Commission has been interviewing representatives of local companies, commercial and residential real estate brokers, and other professionals.

To the brokers, “We asked them, why are people coming in, that you know of? And why are people leaving, that you know of?” Lee-Shuie said.

“People leaving town, we’re seeing things like taxes,” Lee-Shuie said. “People coming into town are mostly families with children, so they’re interested in Wilton as a community, and we’re seeing some that are people who grew up in town and are coming back.”

“It’s kind of what you would have expected,” Lee-Shuie said.

“What percentage [of people leaving] are age-related — too old to be here?” Wilson wondered.

“Departures are largely age-related,” Lee-Suie said. “There was a small percentage that was people losing jobs, but that was very small.”

Commissioner Peter Hubbard said, “The question about departures I have would be, if they leave town, do they move out of the state or not?”

“Somebody moves to South Carolina or Texas or Florida, and you know they’re going to escape taxes. If they move to Darien, it’s something we’re doing wrong,” Hubbard said.

Lee-Shuie said data on where people went once they left wasn’t readily available, but she said, “We did ask why they left town, and we did see in a couple cases trading up, so buying bigger houses in other towns.”

According to Lee-Shuie, talking to big-business commercial brokers has underscored the commission’s findings surveying Wilton’s small-business sector.

“They’re mostly saying people come into town because they have an emotional connection to town. Businesses are coming into town because the CEOs live nearby and don’t want to commute, or they grew up in town and they wanted to establish a business there,” Lee-Shuie said.

“What we’re seeing from the small businesses we’re seeing from the large businesses as well,” she said.

Problematic parking is something that’s shining through some of the results. “They’re basically saying parking is a big theme,” Lee-Shuie said.

She said most businesses are transitioning to shared workspace cubicle office environments, and Wilton’s parking regulations are “shutting out businesses that have a larger number of employees on a smaller footprint” because the restrictions are based on square footage and not number of employees.

“As far as the survey’s concerned, we are getting very close,” Lee-Shuie said. “We’ve been pulling together the demographic information as well, which, again, is confirming what we’ve suspected.”

The Economic Development Commission plans to share preliminary results of the study at its June 8 meeting, and to take the results before the Board of Selectmen on June 20.

“It’s going to come with some recommendations. I think we’re going to find some things that we want to bring up as potential recommendations or incremental studies that come out of this,” Lee-Shuie said.