Commercial real estate market in Wilton is soft

The residential real estate market in Wilton is at a virtual standstill of growth, and the commercial real estate market may not be far behind.

A check of Wilton main roads last week showed more than half a dozen prominent business locations sitting empty, some that have been vacant for years. A check of the online commercial real estate site showed a total of 551 available commercial properties in Wilton, either for sale or lease.

Some of the most prominent retail spaces available include the former Mrs. Green’s market at Gateway Shopping Center on Route 7 near the Norwalk line, which closed more than 18 months ago, and the Crossways, at the junction of the town’s central intersection, Route 7 and Route 33.

Yet another is right on Center Street in the town center, the site of a former athletic shoe store.

If you look a little harder, others appear, like the empty retail space to the rear and right of the Village Market in the town center, that used to be a pet supply store.

“I think it’s a bit soft right now,” said Steve Dudzic, assistant vice president of Urstadt Biddle Properties, which manages and leases the Gateway Shopping Center.

The good news for Gateway is that it was able to lease the former Border’s Books space, to Michael’s Arts and Crafts. Michael’s moved in about three years ago. But the former Mrs. Green’s market space remains available after a year and a half.

“We have a couple of prospects, but not anyone solid,” Dudzic said. “There’s not many tenants that are that size, 15,000-square-feet, looking for a space in general.”

Plus, tenants are selective about the space they lease. They make sure they have the right market and location.

“It’s not a situation where a lot of tenants are lining up for spaces,” Dudzik said.

That need to be certain about the location from all marketing angles is what kept Trader Joe’s, a popular food market, from taking the Crossways property.

“It’s slow in Wilton, it’s hard to draw national retailers here, there are very few. They like more of a commercial development. I tried to get Trader Joe’s but they like a larger commercial development, even though we have the traffic flow,” said Kevin O’Brien, president of O’Brien Premier Properties LLC, a boutique real estate company with offices at the shopping center.

The Crossways is 7.4 acres with commercial buildings, but when when economy slumped in 2008, it got tougher for mom and pop shops to stay open, O’Brien said. The owners of the property realized after getting a zone change in 2012 from general business to Wilton Center, the highest and best use of the property may be to knock the buildings down and sell it to a Walgreen’s, or a Chase Bank, or an assisted-living facility. Those all looked at the property, but never came to make a deal.

The owners have even thought about the possibility of a high-density residential development, with apartments near the train station.

“That’s one of the ideas being floated around here at this site,” O’Brien said.

It’s even challenging finding a new tenant for the former athletic shoe store in the heart of of Wilton Center.

“We’ve had some interest in it, but haven’t been able to find the exact opportunity to fit in the mix of retail tenants here. We’re always looking for prospects. It’s been vacant two years,” said Michael McAndrews, general manager of Kimco Realty, based on Long Island, which manages the shopping center property.

Some real estate managers, such as the one who represents the former car dealership on Route 7 in Georgetown that has been vacant for years, did not return telephone calls seeking comment.

Those who did, painted a grey picture.

“You journey around Wilton Center, you see a lot of empty space. I don’t know, it’s hard to tell exactly why that is,” said David Piersall, one of the owners of the Merwin Building, which hosts the anchor store Village Market and has a couple of spaces available, including the former Oliver’s Place pet supply store.

“I’ve had a lot of nibbles, but nothing concrete,” Piersall said.

At least part of what is causing the vacancies in Wilton is uncertainty over what direction the country and its taxes will take, with the presidential campaign pitting Hillary Clinton against Donald Trump, according to Nicholas Perna, economic adviser to Webster Bank.

“If you are looking for an excuse to wait things out, you’ve got a good excuse,” Perna said.

Fairfield County in general has a vacancy rate of 24%, which Perna said is high. Towns compete against each other for retailers and companies to fill office space, so there is a lot of competition locally.

“In a way this is a weird period to be in, as far as real estate investing goes,” Perna said. “Interest rates are low but they reflect sluggish economic conditions around the world.”