The Ridgefield Chamber of Commerce recently held a “Virtual Forum” for its members to ask questions and express their concerns to Board of Selectmen (BOS) candidates.

The questions were send to the Republican Town Commission and the Democratic Town Commission for distribution to their respective BOS candidates.

Chamber Executive Director Kim Bova said “one element of the Ridgefield Chamber’s mission is advocacy on behalf of our members and it was very important that our member businesses have a voice and hear the candidates’ positions on the issues that matter the most to them.”

“We felt that responses to questions not specifically addressed in other debates would be of value to the community of Ridgefield as well,” she added.

Candidates were encouraged to use the opportunity to answer questions with their position only and not to deflect to anyone else.

The responses from Sean Connelly, Bob Hebert, Maureen Kozlark, Barbara Manners, First Selectman Rudy Marconi and Joe Savino are shared as written, not edited or shortened for length. First Selectman candidate Dick Moccia did not send a response.

1. What type of policy or incentives would you endorse to encourage Main Street retail and minimize turnover?

CONNELLY: “Our vibrant Main Street is one of the best parts of Ridgefield. People from neighboring areas come to visit and then come back again and again to experience our unique, picturesque small town Main Street. While I believe all businesses have a right to operate on Main Street, retail is what keeps people coming back to town. I am focused on expanding efforts to support and encourage retailers to be successful. There are many ways this happens now, with the many events taking place, the focus on the arts (e.g., Prospector, ACT), and our overall efforts to keep Main Street beautiful. Enhancing Main Street’s appeal as a destination for unique local dining and entertainment will likewise boost it as a magnet for unique, eclectic, and successful local retail opportunities by ensuring the steady stream of foot and leisure traffic to feed such businesses.

I know firsthand how tough the retail environment can be. My wife had a shop on Main Street for several years and it was difficult to find the right talent and get people in the door, especially at off times of the year. I have wondered about how the town, the Chamber of Commerce and the Economic and Community Development Commission might better support new retail businesses. I would like to see if we can develop some seminars where new businesses can learn from our successful ones. Perhaps there is even an opportunity to better connect people who would like to open new businesses so reduce the burden and risk, ultimately making it more likely for people to start a business in Ridgefield and ultimately be successful.”

HEBERT: “Successful communities identify the assets that offer the best for charities for growth and development strategies to support them Ridgefield‘s major assets include it’s local businesses, schools, natural beauty, outdoor recreation, historic downtown, arts and cultural institutions. Specifically, I would support the following policies and incentives:

a) Financial and marketing support for nonprofit arts and cultural organizations that draw activity and tourist to main street. These organizations generate millions of dollars in local economic activity in Ridgefield, supporting hundreds of part-time and full-time jobs, and generating millions of dollars in local and state government revenue;

b) I would support and effort to promote a cohesive identity around our core assets; our local businesses, schools, artistic and cultural offerings, and our rich history;

c) I would support a variety of opportunities to connect our main commercial district with new sidewalks and bike paths and the streetscape that is pedestrian friendly;

d) I would encourage cooperation within the business community.

I also endorsed policies and incentives that support not just economic development, but also smart growth and up and approach to community development that protects the environment, create strong neighborhoods with diverse housing, and improves residence quality of life. I would support a variety of opportunities to connect our main commercial district with new sidewalks and bike paths and a street scape that is pedestrian friendly.”

KOZLARK: The proposal of restricting ground floor store fronts on Main Street to exclusively retail shops has been discussed for many years. It is an appealing idea in that Main Street would continue to be a walkable option for shopping while encouraging browsing and impulse sales and remain a magnet of interest to residents.

MANNERS: “I have for many years now felt that storefronts on Main St. should be restricted to retail. In past years the BOS has sent letters to P&Z requesting them to consider a zone change for this purpose. In absence of P&Z action on this request I would strongly encourage the rest of the Board to agree to have our attorney investigate the legality of an ordinance which would provide such a restriction.

We have needed more downtown parking for some time and should have another 53 parking spaces by next spring. It is our hope that merchants will encourage their employees to use these spaces to allow for more customer parking near businesses.

It would seem to me that the more people who come to Ridgefield for events, whether cultural or recreational, or ‘sale days’, the more business our merchants would have. Also, if we can fill more of our storefronts with retail business this would help minimize turnover.”

MARCONI: “Main Street is the Jewel of Ridgefield. I will continue to work closely with the Economic and Community Development Commission to support their efforts to attract suitable merchants to Main Street and Ridgefield in general. When necessary I will—as I have done in the past—work directly with interested retailers to persuade them that Ridgefield is the place for them.

Parking is important. As you know, we will soon have 53 new parking spaces, intended to provide all-day perking for employees to help open up customer parking near retail establishments.

The best way to reduce turnover is to drive business. Our investment in and support for the arts has gone a long way toward attracting visitors to our downtown, helping to fill our shops and restaurants. Our investment in flower baskets, holiday lights and other decorative elements woos people to town as well.

Another challenge faced by merchants is the difficulty of finding employees who can afford to live in the area. I support the work of our affordable housing committee to create housing opportunities for those who work in town. Then there is first floor retail. I support all our downtown businesses, retail and otherwise—but first floor retail is what draws traffic. The BOS has twice sent letters to P&Z requesting consideration for first-floor retail. I will continue to support this zoning regulation change in the future to protect retail sales on Main Street.”

SAVINO: “The best policy is to continue making infrastructure improvements such as the State of Ct Main Street project, and adding additional parking. The 56 additional spaces are not enough but it’s a start. We live in a beautiful walking town and I support more sidewalks around town. I have noticed some Ridgefield retailers building up their internet business to supplement foot traffic. I would be like to hear from Main St retailers and other Ridgefield retailers what help they would need, example 5G, designated delivery truck parking etc. to grow, their businesses more.”

2. Are you prepared to propose tax credits (e.g. personal property tax) and other economic benefits to incentivize companies considering relocating to Ridgefield?

CONNELLY: “I agree with the notion of economic benefits to attract new companies to form and move to Ridgefield. There are already incentives put in place with the Economic and Community Development Commission worth $30,000 (e.g., memberships at the Ridgefield Golf Course, Rec Center, Ridgefield Symphony Orchestra, web-page on Destination Ridgefield). These are helpful efforts to demonstrate that we want business in Ridgefield and I am very open to looking to see what more can be done to demonstrate our openness to new businesses moving here. That said, my instinct is that we should not reduce personal property tax for new businesses as that would not be fair to existing businesses who might compete with the new organizations. I would not want to hurt existing businesses that have been a part of our community in favor of new businesses that may or may not stay in town.”

HEBERT: “Yes. I am prepared to propose tax credit and other economic benefits that are determined to be in the town’s best interest while enticing new businesses to relocate to Ridgefield and retaining existing ones. When considering any tax incentive proposals, the town must weigh the expected benefits with expected cost to determine whether we should proceed with a particular tax incentive package. For this reason, the town has developed tax incentive policies which allow us to be up-front with businesses, accountable to taxpayers and mitigate the appearance of favoritism.”

KOZLARK: “The Board of Selectmen continue to engage in dialogue with the ECDC on such proposals. As with any proposal for tax relief, a cost/benefit analysis would need to be done to ensure all Ridgefield taxpayers would benefit from any incentives that are granted.”

MANNERS: “The Board and the ECDC has already created a trial program to incentivize companies to locate in town and so far, one business has availed itself of that and I would like to see it continued. I’d like to see its results before recommending something else.”

MARCONI: This past year the Board of Selectmen (BOS), in collaboration with the Economic Development Commission (ECD), appropriated a financial incentive for a new business to locate in Ridgefield. This incentive, per the landlord, was instrumental in locating this tenant. I would continue to support this program.”

SAVINO: “Yes I am prepared to propose tax credits. Our grand list only grew 500K last year and that is not enough given the total Town budget is 147 million. The Town Plan of Conservation and Development targets 15% from commercial and we are less than 10%. Ridgefield currently has over 85,000 square feet of vacant office space. Bringing jobs and companies to Ridgefield will help us grow our grand list. Any tax credit would apply to existing businesses in Ridgefield that want to invest and grow here. Other towns are aggressively recruiting companies with incentives, and we absolutely should follow suit.”

3. As a business owner, our sewer costs have just doubled. What are you doing to reduce these costs and get them under control?

CONNELLY: “The sewer project is a large project and brings significant cost. I understand the pain that the recent increase of $280 per unit is, especially to people on a fixed-income and already struggling to pay their bills as well as local businesses who may have many units. Our businesses do see a large increase and that’s tough to get such an expected hit to your expenses. While no one seems happy about how this is being paid for, ultimately, I feel there is an appropriate sharing of the costs across multiple groups, including funding from the state, those in the sewer district, as well as the entire town. We have heard from many outside the sewer district who are unhappy about funding the upgrade, but I believe that the benefits to Ridgefield overall make it appropriate that we all share in this burden. Over time, the hope is the rates will be adjusted to account for the true costs of the project.”

HEBERT: “Although the board of selectmen appoint the members of the WPCA board, the selectmen do not have any control or legal authority over the WPCA. From planning the needed infrastructure through design and construction oversight, to operations, maintenance and permitting, rates and fees charged, DEEP provides guidance and regulatory oversight related to waste water-water at the municipal level. As a selectman, I will continue my efforts to work with the WPCA and seek ways to find alternative rate structures.”

KOZLARK: “The WPCA has control and authority over the rates for sewer usage. Recommendations from the Board of Selectmen in response to this current increase have been to investigate the ability to extend the maturity of the bond which would reduce the annual payments over a longer time period and encourage the WPCA to examine the possibility of a usage fee. Although not generally known by the public at large the renovation and upgrade to the Sewer Plant has been on the Town capital project list for over 5 years. It is not a “nice to have” but a “need to do” capital project to comply with State regulations.”

MANNERS: “As the members of the Chamber should be aware, the update of our sewer plant is mandated by environmental regulations not subject to BOS jurisdiction. We have however obtained a state grant of over $11 million dollars to help with the upgrade and the BOS recommended and the town voted to approve an $8 million dollar bond offering to also help with the expense. While many in town are not on sewer themselves, it was strongly felt and supported by the vote, that the sewer benefits all residents because it serves Ridgefield’s downtown with its businesses, restaurants and cultural institutions. The balance of the cost will come from payment of the sewer use fees over the next twenty years and since by state law we are restricted to a twenty year bond and not allowed a 25 or 30 year bond, the fees are higher than anyone would like and can’t be amortized over as long a period as we would prefer. Again, however, the fees are not set by the Board of Selectmen which has no jurisdiction over the WPCA. It is my hope that the town can establish a fund which will assist those who have trouble paying their sewer fees just as we have one to help people needing assistance with other utility bills. And as private citizens we can all lobby to encourage the federal and state governments to provide more grants to assist municipalities. Clean effluent benefits us not just locally but throughout our country’s waterways, which flow not only from town to town but state to state and throughout the country.”

MARCONI: “As you probably know, we had no choice but undertake the upgrade to our sewer plant, and it is being done in the most economical way possible. By acting quickly, we were able to obtain a state grant to reduce the cost to users by $11.5 million. Further, we apportioned $8 million of the costs to the whole town—because the entire town benefits from our downtown district. This will be paid for by a bond that the town voted for in a referendum last year. That said, I know the increase ($280 per unit) can be painful—I live in the sewer district on Main Street myself. The new rates are based on cost estimates from design engineers. The proposed rates will be reviewed for possible reductions once actual costs are known and projects have been completed. Everyone should understand that this is already usage based. Rates are currently based on 35 different categories of water usage.”

SAVINO: “The town needed to upgrade its sewer plant. This was approved by the Town in November 2018. The Board of Selectmen needs to do is three things working with the WPCA

1. We need to make sure this $48-million project comes on time and on budget. This includes a heavy duty cost management system, and ensuring we get all the state and federal grants due.

2. We need to overhaul how we charge for sewer. It needs to be usage based for both commercial and residential users. It’s the most equitable way, and will eliminate the patchwork method which we do today.

3. We need to consider new sewer hookup charges. They have not been raised since the late 1990’s. Keeping these artificially low penalizes existing users. A new septic system costs over $20,000. The current sewer hookup fee is $5,700.”

4. Do you support easing sign restriction for local businesses trying to boost traffic? Why or why not? (especially given campaign signs are all over town)

CONNELLY: “The charm of Ridgefield is one of the biggest reasons people come to visit, shop and live in Ridgefield. We should be working to support local business and to that end I am open to working with the Planning and Zoning Commission to review the current restrictions relative to requests from our business owners. However, my overall instinct is that we want to maintain appropriate controls to make sure we keep our town and Main Street beautiful. I'd like to hear what changes in signage our businesses feel would enhance their sales.”

HEBERT: “As a commercial real estate investor, I understand the importance of effect signage. I also understand the importance of maintaining the charm of Main Street. I would support and effort whereby our businesses and elected officials work together with marketing and design professionals to develop guidelines that will allow our businesses to take advantage of today’s technology while maintaining the character and charm of our town.”

MANNERS: “To the extent that signs do not block traffic on either street or sidewalk I have no objection to sandwich boards for a limited period of time to promote special events or sales. I would not want to see neon signs flashing.”

KOZLARK : “Seeing the campaign signs all over town - some not following the restrictions - is the reason I would like to keep guidelines. I am completely in favor of businesses trying to boost traffic through advertising but I fear (and see with the campaign signs!) that without guidelines we experience visual pollution.”

MARCONI: “You may remember back a few years when all signs had to be black and white. Things have sure changed! I understand the importance of signage to retailers, and believe retailers should be able to promote their businesses. But there have to be regulations, or the town will look like a circus. Signage restrictions are created and enforced by the Planning and Zoning Commission. As you know, their regulations allow businesses to erect “special event” signage up to four times per year for two weeks, and temporary window signage is allowed to fill a large percentage of the windows. Any easing of those regulations would be the decision of P&Z. As a member of the Board of Selectmen, my support would be based on the degree of variance from the existing regulations.”

SAVINO: “Commercial signage is covered by P&Z today. When I served on P&Z, we made some regulation updates. I would be open to working with P&Z and the Chamber of Commerce to see if the current sign restrictions reflect more modern times.”

5. Should the Economic & Community Development Commission budget be spent on general town marketing or seeking to recruit business to Ridgefield?

CONNELLY: “The simple answer to this question is yes. Yes, the Economic & Community Development Commission’s should be spent on both marketing the town overall as well as recruiting business. At the October 23 Board of Selectmen meeting, Bobby Knight (who was being appointed to the Commission) made an excellent point about the evolving nature of development. He noted that in the past, the core of economic development has been to focus on attracting businesses but that the scope of the commission needs to also cover community development. I fully agree with this evolution of objectives of the commission.”

HEBERT: “When the selectmen have to make difficult spending decisions, we should see all forms of economic development so we can make informed and balanced decisions based on a complete picture of the whole marketing and development budget. I would like to see collaboration between the Chamber of Commerce and the Economic and Community Development Commission, whereby they develop a marketing plan to both market the town and recruit new businesses.”

KOZLARK: “The BOS has diligently examined the Town budget to minimize tax increases. The ECDC should have autonomy as to how it spends its monies which has been allocated to it as part of this budget process.”

MANNERS: “The ECDC should spend its budget on helping increase foot traffic to existing businesses as well as recruiting new ones. Increasing traffic can be by supporting major events in town that bring people to Ridgefield. To the extent that ECDC can help businesses reduce overhead through consolidation of a number of needed services, that should also be a priority since it helps our local businesses that are already here to continue and thrive.”

MARCONI: “I don’t think it’s an “either/or.” There’s no point in trying to attract customers if we don’t have a full and vibrant retail environment. In fact, having the right mix of business is what attracts customers in the first place. The ECDC is uniquely positioned to identify and recruit businesses who are most compatible with the town. Further they can work to “shape” the retail environment through their advocacy in the planning process. My approach is to appoint the most qualified and creative people to the Commission (and this we have done), and then support them in developing and implementing plans to attract both business and customers.”

SAVINO: “Yes. As an experienced and successful IT sales executive, we definitely need to laser focus on growing our tax base, and dedicated recruitment is required. This focused effort should be led by the Economic & Community Development team and have the full support of the Board of Selectmen. I see five things need to happen to make us successful:

1- A survey of our current commercial businesses, what do they like and don’t like about Ridgefield. If they have a plan to grow and need support to grow we should support them.

2- Building a competitive value proposition with economic incentives and then start targeting small companies for recruitment. This value proposition should also include our State of Connecticut incentives that Gov. Lamont is highlighting are available

3- Build a focused list of companies to target. I would focus on business to business services.

4- We may need to update our current B1/B2/B3 zones which would require working with P&Z As a former P&Z Commissioner I would assist anyway I can.

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5- The town needs to do what other towns are doing and invest more funds in marketing and recruitment. The current funding is not enough and is not being spent in the most effective way which today is IT and internet. Our Economic & Community Development team is a very talented group of individuals and we should give them the support needed to grow our tax base. “