Residents share ideas for economic development
Three weeks ago, the Economic Development Commission (EDC) announced it would be hosting a public forum in the Brubeck Room at Wilton Library on Oct. 15 for town residents wishing to share their thoughts on spurring economic development in Wilton. To encourage public participation, the commission set up a web page for online idea submissions and selected three winners to present onstage to an audience of their peers and a panel comprised of EDC commissioners and Wilto business executives.
Economic Development Commission Chairman Peter Gaboriault and Commissioner Lee Wilson were joined on the panel by Rockit Solutions LLC Chief Technology Officer Dan Berg, True Commercial Real Estate Managing Partner Dominick Musilli, and Ann Nash, owner of Signature Style LLC and board member of the Wilton Chamber of Commerce.
Wilton resident Jennie C. Wong thought Wilton, because it is commonly defined as a “semi-rural” town, should thrive “where nature meets the future” by targeting the clean energy sector and become a corridor for that market, inviting companies like Tesla and SolarCity to occupy some of the vacant office space in town and eventually to zone some part of Wilton as the “green design zone.”
“All of these companies are located in California, but we have something that they don’t have: the opportunity … to design and test a product with the Northeast consumer,” Wong said.
Berg liked the idea, though he marked the lack of short-term feasibility.
“If you look at what’s in Wilton right now from a manufacturing and office standpoint, it’s a hodgepodge,” Berg said. “There are big companies, there are small companies, there are companies that make things, there are companies that provide services, but there is no theme to it, and that’s probably true of most office space in most towns in most states everywhere in the world, but it is interesting, and there are places where communities in cooperation with state government have said, ‘We’re going to develop a corridor that is focused on this sort of business.’”
Gaboriault, however, was not so optimistic.
“In our strategic recommendation we identified about 20 properties that were underdeveloped, but there really doesn’t exist a type of property that can handle your big vision. We don’t have a big industrial park where we can drop somebody like Tesla into,” he said.
Neil Gluckin was the next presenter and suggested that Wilton, as a government and citizen body together, clearly define what exactly is meant by “economic development” before blindly moving on with it.
“The town of Wilton should undertake a comprehensive, action-oriented planning exercise whose objective is to formulate a long-term vision for our community and to identify the most important steps we need to take to achieve and sustain,” Gluckin said. “We should know what success looks like five years from now, 10 years from now, 20 years from now.
“The commuter-based, standalone suburban community that Wilton has been for most of its career is becoming an increasingly unsustainable model, for a number of reasons,” he continued. “How much longer can communities that depend entirely on private ownership of homes, transportation primarily by car, absence of a reliable and flexible public transportation system — how much longer does this make sense?”
“I think you hit the nail on the head,” said Gaboriault. “It’s going to take a commitment; it’s going to take money and a commitment, and if the will hasn’t been there, if the will is there going forward, then I think we do exactly [that].”
“I’d like to compliment this gentleman for his comments; I think they’re right on the mark,” added Wilson. “The town needs to be proactive in the planning function. … Though the Planning and Zoning Commission has a document [that outlines a plan for conservation and development], it’s not a master plan for the future, and that’s what we need.”
Megan Abrahamsen, Wilton resident and owner of Blue Star Bazaar, a brick-and-mortar boutique for women and children in Wilton, recommended the town purchase Cannondale and develop it for retail.
“A plan that I think would help address a lot of these things,” Abrahamsen said, “is if the town actually purchased, on its own, or with a development partner, purchased Cannondale, redeveloped it, and then especially for the retail spaces, sold those spaces as business condos back to retailers or business owners. As a business owner that has a long-term commitment to Wilton, I would consider buying a place for my business rather than always being the renter to a larger landlord, but I’m not going to buy a parcel or a development that’s priced at a million dollars. I might consider buying a unit that’s priced at $500,000, and take on that rent as part of my business expense. So I think if the town invested in Cannondale, puts the money in up front or mortgages the property, you could even sign on occupants — people that want to buy those spaces — from the beginning, to help finance it.”
According to Gaboriault, the EDC is well aware that large swaths of Cannondale are on the market, and he and Wilson have in fact been pursuing such a purchase since the beginning of their tenures on the commission.
“You’re sort of preaching to the choir,” he said. “Lee and I — Cannondale has been our hot button since the day we joined the commission, and ironically, it’s not just the center that’s for sale. … The whole thing is in play right now, and it’s a huge opportunity that we’re going to lose if we don’t do something. It’s got the railroad station; it’s got Route 7, and it’s doing nothing; it’s adding nothing to Wilton’s character at this point. It’s a dilapidated mess. If we could get the will and the money to do something about it, it’s a home run waiting to be hit.”
Wilson supported Gaboriault’s stance wholeheartedly. He sees Cannondale as an economic paradise.
“Cannondale has all the elements for tremendous success,” Wilson said. “No. 1: it’s got level topography. It has a river. It has public utilities. It has a railroad station. Do you know how difficult it is to get a railroad station? It has buildings that can be reconfigured in specified planning to create some synergies so you can park your car once and walk to a few different stores. If you compare what has transpired in Wilton Center, where the capital has already been committed — it’s too late in Wilton Center for large change, at least in the short term, but that is not the case in Cannondale. The capital has not been committed to Cannondale.”
“The town of Wilton must take the initiative to do a master plan for that area,” Wilson concluded.
After the audience and panel heard the presenters, there was a lightning round of ideas that were submitted to the EDC but were not selected for presentation. These included:
- A film commission to facilitate and encourage motion picture and television production in Wilton.
- Bigger, more attractive signs on Route 7 to direct people to Wilton.
- Small chain stores to pull people from Route 7 to Wilton Center.
- A playground in Wilton Center.
- A town ombudsman for businesses.
- Rezoning to attract anchor businesses.
- Turning Schenck’s Island into a destination park.
- A temporary ice rink in Wilton Center.