Empty storefronts: Prospect worries selectmen, ECDC

A gift shop, a liquor store, a real estate office, a hair salon, and an ice cream shop — the holiday lights are twinkling now but Ridgefield is losing some businesses, or will be in the new year. And town officials worry the grim spectacle of empty storefronts may return to Main Street, despite the alleged strength of the national economy.

“Moving to retail, we all know we have four or five empties, or soon-to-be empties,” Selectman Steve Zemo said as the Board of Selectmen met with the Economic and Community Development Commission (ECDC) on Dec. 12.

Main Street storefronts reported recently to have businesses closing include The Purple Frog gift shop, Johnny Gelato ice cream store, Cheers liquor store, and the William Raveis real estate office. The Pink Soda Blow-Dry Bar hair salon on Roberts Lane, off Danbury Road, is also closing.

On the positive side, Semia USA, a Lego robotics center aimed at kids, is opening off Prospect Street in the village next to Eddie’s Pizza.

Zemo said the reports of several business closures made him think back to his first stint on the board, some three decades back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Sue Manning was first selectmen and the economy was going through some changes.

“We had seven or eight empty storefronts,” Zemo recalled.

There has been a longer term trend of difficulties renting out offices — people talk of a regional glut of office space — and members of the ECDC were describing to the selectmen their plans for a survey of commercial space in town to get a handle on what’s occupied and what’s empty, and try to determine a vacancy rate.

“The focus has been on office, because it’s such a big number,” Zemo said.

What about retail vacancies?

“The survey will include all commercial property,” ECDC member Gus Ryer said.

The economic commission, in a year-end review of its efforts, also said it had tried to develop an online resource that would allow businesses interested in moving to Ridgefield to see the commercial space available. The ECDC offered free listings, but the concept hadn’t really gotten much momentum.

Zemo was impressed with the ECDC’s regional marketing effort in support of the Ridgefield Independent Film Festival (RIFF), and wondered if something like that might be tried to help with marketing of empty storefronts.

“Would you investigate those, and consider a campaign as you did with RIFF?” he said.

Neighboring towns

The discussion at the selectmen’s Dec. 12 meeting also touched on reports of problems with shop closings in neighboring towns, where numerous chain retailers are reportedly closing ahead of the planned opening of a new $500 million, 700,000-square-foot mall in South Norwalk called “the SoNo Collection.”

“New Canaan, Greenwich, Westport,” John Devine of the ECDC said, outlining towns affected. “... Five empty storefronts in Westport, seven empty storefronts in New Canaan.”

People passed around copies of a story from a New Canaan news outlet about that town’s Planning and Zoning Commission voting to allow offices on the first floor of some commercial properties — backing away form the “first floor retail” approach in New Canaan that some in Ridgefield had pointed to as a model to be followed.

Those towns are facing something different than Ridgefield, Devine said. They’re closer to the new Norwalk mall — a situation similar to what Ridgefield’s downtown went through years ago when the Danbury Fair Mall opened just a few miles to the north.

“They’re staring at a problem we faced,” Devine said.

Ridgefield also has more independent and mom-and-pop type businesses, which may be less inclined than chain stores to close and move to a new mall setting.

“We don’t have those chains, so we’re lucky,” Zemo said.

And Westport and New Canaan are more expensive places to rent retail space.

“They were getting $60-to-$80 a square foot, where on Main Street here is much less than that,” Devine said.

“Is that going to affect us?” Selectman Bob Hebert asked of the new Norwalk mall.

“The novelty will,” First Selectman Rudy Marconi said.

Zemo suggested the ECDC boost efforts to market Ridgefield and help fend off the empty storefronts that threaten to cast a shadow on the downtown’s feeling of economic vibrancy.

“I think we’ll need a positive spin post-holidays, when those vacancies are real,” Zemo said.

Zemo, who is a developer and landlord renting a variety of commercial and residential spaces, late told The Press that he’d like to see Central Business District landlords as a group take a more active role.  

“I would think the landlords (6-7 of them) from the CBD would meet to create a marketing strategy in light of the current increase in business closings,” Zemo said. “I think the ECDC is going a fine job but Main Street is not their sole focus or responsibility. Perhaps the ECDC can host the first meeting.

“We’ll get through this,” he added. “Our community has strong demographics; we just need to adjust to the changes in the macro retail dynamics."