Tax incentive renewed for single downtown business

With mixed feelings about a break for a single landlord and tenant when many businesses are experiencing difficulties, the selectmen approved renewing a $5,200 tax credit for commercial landlord Urstadt Biddle and its tenant, Tablao Wine Bar and Restaurant at 426 Main Street.

“What we’re seeking to do is obtain a renewal to the tax incentive that was essential to our ability to obtain Tablao last year,” Stephen Rapaglia of Urstadt Biddle Properties told the selectmen.

The tax credit was granted to the one location as a trial program put together by the Economic and Community Development Commission (ECDC) to promote the economic health of Main Street. The idea was that a tax credit would allow landlords to charge lower rents, advancing the related goals of helping to attract new businesses, reduce rapid turnover in commercial spaces, and keep storefronts in town filled.

“It was an ECDC initiative to help fill the space,” Geoffrey Morris of the Economic and Community Development Commission told the selectmen’s June 24 discussion.

“...This was a program that the ECDC initiated a few years ago, it was a test to see if giving a tax credit would work and bring businesses in. Clearly it helped here.”

Rapaglia said the tax incentive had helped land and keep the wine bar as a tenant.

“Tablao is still around. I went to dinner with my family last night,” Rapaglia said.

Morris said it made sense to renew the tax credit for another year.

“We put it out there and that’s the reason this lease got signed. It just makes sense to continue this this year,” Morris said.

“If anything, these incentives are even more important now, given everything that’s happening with retail,” Repaglia said.

The selectmen were told the cost of tax incentive would be covered from two sources: $2,400 from the Economic and Community Development Commission’s budget; and $2,800 from the selectmen’s contingency account, which had $20,000 in it with the fiscal year winding down.

The town and school budget for 2019-20 totals $148 million, and the fiscal year ends June 30.

Morris said the Economic and Community Development Commission had money available since the ECDC had been spending less on promoting Ridgefield due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“So much of what ECDC does is tourism related, and getting people to come to town,” he said. “And since March we have not wanted to bring anybody into town.”

Selectwoman Maureen Kozlark was skeptical of extending the tax credit to one landlord and tenant, when many businesses are facing tremendous difficulties due to the pandemic.

“Unfortunately, COVID has hit a lot of stores and a lot of businesses owners very hard,” Kozlark said. “I think the town is trying to do whatever we can to help, to keep our Main Street thriving, and bring people back in, now that some restrictions are lifted.”

That’s similar to the goals the selectmen had in mind when they initially agreed to the tax incentive program, she said.

“We were just thinking of the town as a whole, Main Street as whole,” Kozlark said.

Selectwoman Barbara Manners said she had concerns about a tax credit benefiting one landlard and tenant.

“There are so many retailers and businesses that could use some help,” she said, expecially given the difficulties of the pandemic and the following economic shut down.

“I’m not sure it’s really fair,” she said.

“I hear what you’re saying,” First Selectman Rudy Marconi said. “When we did this, we weren’t looking at COVID-19. We were looking at trying to stimulate occupancy in vacancies in our downtown.”

But he wanted to follow through on the initial plan to review and possibly renew the tax credit for up to three years.

“I’d like to remain faithful to the effort that was made and agreement that was made,” Marconi said. “The money is available. We should approve it.”

“My recollection is that we did grant this for a period of three years, subject to having the money available for it,” Selectman Bob Hebert said. “I think we have to honor that.”

Selectman Sean Connelly moved approval. It passed 3-1-1, with Marconi and Hebert joining Connelly in support, Kozlark opposed, and Manners abstaining.

“I like a program like this,” Connelly said. “We see empty spaces, we want to encourage a business to take a chance they might not otherwise.”