For Gail Lettick, an antique shop owner in Woodbury, the world is in the midst of a "reset."
“The ways that used to work for us no longer work. Too many people believe that the way we lived when we grew up is the way it will be again," she said. "But it doesn't work anymore.”
That sentiment is shared by neighbors, small business owners and government officials throughout the region.
Residents want reassurance new development will be sustainable over time without having a dramatic impact on the character of their towns. Smaller local businesses feel they should be supported and larger corporations should be kept at bay. Governments are facing an epic struggle to attract sustainable businesses in the face of declining tax rolls. And definitely don't raise anyone's taxes.
How is this all playing out in real time? We took to the streets to find out, checking in with residents and officials in several communities.
“One thing we don't want in Woodbury are conglomerates and that's what sets Woodbury apart,” Lettick said. She recounted a situation where Dunkin' Donuts sued to open in the space of a former summer eatery named Corey's. “But the town prevailed because Corey's was only a summer business and Dunkin' Donuts would have had to follow the same hours.”
For William Orsini of Naugatuck, it's definitely personal.
“They are ripping down the woods behind my house and putting up more condos,” he said.
Even those who broadly in favor of development share concerns about the future.
“I am in favor of people doing what they want with their property, but I hope it doesn't bite us in the nose," said Frank Martino of Middlebury. "They built all those condos, and with the senior housing, if they only sell 60 percent of them, you can be sure they are going to change the by-laws and they'll let families move in there. Middlebury is a small town and people like it that way.”
From the perspective of small business owners, economic choices need to make sense. After all, they know they drive jobs, not big box stores. According to the Small Business Administration, small businesses generated 65 percent of net new jobs over the past 17 years.
In Monroe, road construction in the Main Street area is creating havoc with traffic. Gina Brice, the manager of , points across the parking lot at some of the new businesses coming in, and says: "We are doing so many pointless things with construction. We have banks going up all over the place, and nobody has any money. I think we should focus more on helping small businesses rather than corporations.”
The concept of building to suit the community has always played some part in economic development, but after decades of corporate growth and globalization, the residents we spoke to believe that new development must be looked at through a sharper lens.
Jim Felice, whose sculpture studio is on the Bethel/Danbury line, said, “They need to ask what does the community need, and try to project accordingly. What's the purpose of more buildings if you don't need them? A community is about the people. You need to satisfy the needs of the community. Thoughtful development is the key,”
Robert Murphy, father and resident of Newtown for seven years, said that economic development should be based in sustained development rather than solely to bring in business.
Murphy felt that needs to be the focus in Newtown and Elizabeth Stocker, , agreed.
“The town has several vacant properties, which are our main areas of concern. We are doing as much networking as we can. We are targeting a lot of manufacturers in the growth phase of their business. We want to see reuse of the brownfield properties that right now are non-performing to pay taxes. We would like to see those buildings redeveloped and contributing to the tax base. That is a very important part of what we are focusing on.”
Stocker said that all of the plans for development were based on recruiting businesses that would keep Newtown environmentally clean for its residents and that the town is applying for two grants for assessment and clean-up.
Not all efforts at developing a sustainable income for the towns and cities are aimed at actual development — and not all unfold as planned.
The Route 7 extension was built to ease traffic between New Milford and Danbury but has caused many of Brookfield's shops to suffer. In the four corners area of Brookfield, marked by four gas stations on Route 7 and Rt 202, "For Rent" signs line an area that used to be heavily traveled. Now New Milford's residents bypass the area entirely.
“The Brookfield Craft Center used to be a place I would drive by, now it's a destination,” craft student Charmaine Wood of New Milford said. “When I heard the Brookfield Craft School was closing I was so upset. People come here to take classes from all over the country. There is no other place like it. It's in this charming old building in this quaint area, with the river and falls running behind it. This little area should be the mecca of Brookfield. There is no town green and there is enough parking here. The river is so pretty.”
closed but was able to reopen. As an educational non-profit, they have been able to obtain grants, according to Betsy Halliday, marketing director of the center.
In Danbury, wooing more entertainment is the focus.
Rich Treadwell of Danbury said, “I would like to see them do more with Ives Street. Even the Center with the band shell — it isn't like it used to be. People used to flock there. You used to see young people spilling into the streets in that area. Everyone goes to the mall now.”