A tough year behind, Marconi has hopes for 2021 in Ridgefield

First Selectman Rudy Marconi is an advocate of mask wearing. Most Ridgefielders do it, he says.

First Selectman Rudy Marconi is an advocate of mask wearing. Most Ridgefielders do it, he says.

Macklin Reid / Hears Connecticut Media

With Ridgefield’s plans and projects — as well as his own life and health — disrupted by the COVID-19, First Selectman Rudy Marconi paused to reflect on the year ahead, 2021, and can’t help but see it in relation to the pandemic that cast a long dark shadow over 2020.

“How’ve we done handling the virus? It’s really how the people of Ridgefield have done handling the virus. I’d say overall they’ve done very well,” Marconi said.

He discussed the coming and past years in a phone interview from his office, with windows overlooking Main Street.

“I can see now where people are walking together, all have masks on,” he said.

“I see an individual now not wearing a mask. Those are the people you wonder about.”

Is it politics? Stubbornness? Is there some medical reason for no mask — asthma?

“You’re not going to say ‘Let me see your papers’ — that strikes me as similar to a type of society we don’t want to live in,” Marconi said.

“But overall, Ridgefield has been very diligent in following the protocols,” Marconi said. “Have there been exceptions? Yes.”

The issue is important to him.

“If everyone wore a mask, we’d see a 30 percent reduction in the pandemic-associated deaths that will occur through the spring,” he said. “And that’s not just the old people, that’s young and old. And, yes, young people are dying.”

To Marconi, it seems pretty simple.

“When you leave your home, put your mask on,” he said. “Get used to it, because it’s going to be here for a while.”

Marconi feels strongly. He had COVID-19.

He came home from a Board of Selectmen’s meeting on April 1. He didn’t feel well, went to bed, and wasn’t back at town hall until the third week of May — almost two months.

“I, unfortunately, had a more serious strain,” he said.

“Having gone through it certainly has erased completely any doubt about this virus, that may have existed prior to, relative to the seriousness that it represents.

“So some people may look at me, saying ‘He’s overreacting. This isn’t that bad, it’s a hoax’ — I’ve heard that,” Marconi said.

“Those people are more of the science fiction type,” he said. “I’ve been through it. It’s very real and we need to protect the health, safety and welfare of the people of this town — that’s my job.

“Yes, it’s made me more aggressive in getting DOCS to come here to set up testing, so people of Ridgefield can get tested.”

Psychological impact

Of course, the pandemic impacts lives many ways.

“If you look at the psychological impact of COVID-19 it depends on what you want to look at,” Marconi said.

“If you look at the schools and our younger population, are they learning?

“...‘Remote learning’ — it’s a lot of change. Whether you’re in second grade or 12th grade, it’s all changing.”

What affects kids affects parents.

“Remote learning: Who stays home? Do we have the bandwidth? Our kids are on remote learning while we’re trying to participate in Zoom meetings,” Marconi said.

“Many are making out fine, but there are others that are having troubles. There’s no doubt it’s having a psychological impact.”

Businesses

The business community has felt it.

“There’s no doubt,” Marconi said.

“Everyone loves Main Street. People come to our town, many people say they move here for our schools. But many people know the schools are here, see Main Street, and Main Street is the icing on the cake.”

In recent years Ridgefield’s downtown has remained vibrant. Businesses do come and go, but storefronts are usually quickly refilled.

“COVID has put that all in danger,” Marconi said.

“This Christmas was not a good Christmas for retailers,” he said.

“Restaurants, some did OK, others have had a tough go of it,” Marconi said.

“Most restaurants don’t have financial models that are based on 50 percent occupancy.”

There are programs — such as the federal Payroll Protection Program or ‘PPP’ — designed to help. But they don’t work for everyone.

“That’s one of the concerns we have, to do everything we can, locally, to keep the mom and pop operations going,” Marconi said.

Problems that hurt one business can be passed along to others.

“That puts pressure on the landlords, too, to keep up the property, to make it attractive so its inviting to a new retailers to come town,” Marconi said.

“Most retailers don’t want to come to a town where the paint’s peeling.”

But Marconi thinks there’s cause for optimism.

“I look out my window now, every spot is full. It wasn’t that way when COVID started. There is good news,” he said. “We need to keep that going.”

Projects

Among the town projects slowed during the pandemic is the expansion of the Governor Street parking lot.

“That was approved by the voters. We put it on hold because, with COVID, there was no demand for parking,” Marconi said.

“We wanted to be sure what we’re doing is the right thing. We had the number of spaces reduced substantially due to wetlands. Originally it was 50-plus, we’re now down to 30-plus.

“But that project is being geared up,” he said.

The “Branchville TOD” is a plan to encourage growth in Branchville with the train station seen as a centerpeice — giving it the “transit oriented development” or “TOD” name. Sidewalks, street lamps and other amenities are planned, along with two bridge replacements — the Depot Road Bridge and Portland Avenue Bridge.

It involves state and federal money — and bureaucracy.

“Most people are working from home. Although you can be productive, it did slow our progress down substantially,” Marconi said.

“We have a meeting next week on Depot Road Bridge,” Marconi said. There are businesses on the east side of the tracks, behind the train station. Trucks can’t make the left turn off Portland Avenue Bridge to reach the business. Without Depot Road Bridge, they have to go down to Georgetown and come back on Portland Avenue.

“I know the neighbors are very concerned about that,” Marconi said. “What we’re looking at is investigating the possibility of a temporary bridge, and the cost associated with that, to see if the federal and state are willing to pay for that as part of the project. Needless to say that’s going to be a tough uphill fight.”

Currently, Depot Road isn’t even open to cars, never mind big trucks.

“However, when the project starts in 2023, that will be the first bridge to be fixed,” Marconi said.

Venus, Playhouse

Much nearer to completion is the town’s $1.3 million renovation of the Venus building’s south end — facing the police station — so the Board of Education offices can be moved there.

Relocating the school offices will allow their current space to be renovated, expanded into and rented by The Ridgefield Playhouse.

“That’s nearing its completion, the south end of the building,” Marconi said.

“We hope to be seeing the Board of Education moving its offices — maybe sooner, but at least by this summer.”

Despite the pandemic, The Playhouse still has a long-range plan to expand into the current school office area. And town officials want to support The Playhouse.

“That’s been a tremendous economic driver for this town,” Marconi said. “In fact, on a Zoom call the other day the mayor of Stamford said he’s going to come up and steal the Playhouse from us.”

Police, fire station

Replacement of aging police and fire department facilities is likely to come up in 2021.

“I don’t know when we’ll bring it to the voters, because we’re exhausting every possible alternative, not only from a logistics perspective but also from a cost perspective,” Marconi said.

A possibility under study would combine the two into one project.

“Although everyone would love to have their own new facility, sometimes it makes a little more sense to combine facilities,” Marconi said.

There will be discussions between the Board of Selectmen, the Police Commission, the chiefs of both departments.

“What’s the best solution for police? What’s the best solution for fire? What’s the best solution for emergency medical services to the people of Ridgefield?” Marconi said.

Location may be more important for the fire department. Police cruisers are out driving around town, but the ambulances and fire trucks sit at their station, waiting for a call.

“They need to respond from the firehouse, and where you locate that building is crucial for the time element,” Marconi said.

Also, the town owns land that might be used, but they could also buy land if there was a significantly better location for reaching all parts of town.

“There have been no decisions made,” Marconi said.

“This is not being rushed. We have two buildings, each one is over 100 years old, and in pretty rough shape.”

Whatever town officials decide will be put before voters for approval.

Main Street

Town officials have also been collaborating with the state on a Main Street redesign.

It involves adding turning lanes and a lot of`landscaping, but the heart of the project is moving the driveway of the CVS shopping center so it’s directly across from Prospect Street — allowing the three traffic lights in town to be better synchronized.

Construction is scheduled the year after next.

“That’s still for 2022, construction will start,” Marconi said.

That spring?

“Hopefully, as soon as soon as can be,” Marconi said.

It’s important to get started early, so work can be done by the time the Christmas shopping season comes.

“End of February. Beginning of March,”Marconi said. “That’ll be up to Mother Nature.”

Budget

In 2020, town budget procedures were streamlined under executive orders from the governor. Town boards approved the budget. Voters could offer opinions at Zoom meetings, but the final say was with the Board of Finance.

Soon the process will be starting again. Whatever the procedures, the decisions won’t be easy.

“Budgets are always difficult,” Marconi said. “There are many needs that we have both from an education perspective, and from a community-as-a-whole perspective with the town budget.

“There are many things we need to do, would like to do. But it seems as though I’m constantly asking the same question: Is this a ‘would like to have’ or a ‘have to have?’ ”

Real estate

One pandemic-related change may be helpful.

“Real estate sales are through the roof,” Marconi said.

“It’s not just Ridgefield, all of southwestern Connecticut is experiencing this. There is a very broad exodus out of the cities, into the suburbs, and the more rural areas, as well ...”

But knowing the buying surge is caused by the pandemic takes some glow off the good news. “In normal times you’d say ‘great,’ ” Marconi said.

Still, it will help with the budget.

“It’s reflected in our conveyance taxes” he said.

The town gets a small share of the taxes the state charged on real estate sales — called “conveyance taxes.” The town’s take is affected by both the prices and sales volume — which are both up, dramatically.

“Conveyance taxes are at an all-time high — and I mean all-time high, We’re hitting numbers this town has never seen before,” Marconi said.

That’s good news for town revenue. But the pandemic has had a bad effects, too. Income from the town’s Recreation Center is way down.

The questions are how much — and how fast — will it come back after people are vaccinated, and life returns to something like normal.

“Once people are vaccinated what are the psychological implications at that point? Do we see people doing a 180 and going right back to what they were doing?

“This becomes part of my budget thinking,” Marconi said. “How do you project revenues? What are we going to see come July, August and September? It remains to be seen. Hope for the best and prepare for the worst.

“And my job here is being prepared.”

But the big hope isn’t about budgets. It’s that safe, effective vaccines against COVID-19 will bring back life as people used to know it.

Marconi looked out his window again.

“I’m seeing one, two, three, four, five young people out front right now, and every one has their mask on, I’d say they’re in that 14- to 15-year-old range. It’s good to see,” Marconi said.

Still, sometime in 2021, Marconi hopes he’ll be able to look out the window and not be mentally checking for masks.

“The light at the end of the tunnel is something good — it’s help, it’s a vaccine,” Marconi said. “It’s not a freight train, which is good ...”