First-floor retail: ‘Service businesses’ could have upside on Main Street

Will “e-tailing” erode commerce at brick-and-mortar stores in ways that change the face of Ridgefield’s Main Street? Is it shortsighted to view “service businesses,” like salons and studios, as problematic because they aren’t traditional retailers?

The value of “first-floor retail” tenants to Main Street has long been a widely accepted article of faith among town officials. Many seek ways to preserve the village as a walkable retail district with sidewalks and window shopping. But one town official — finance board member Amy Mccartney Freidenrich — has wondered aloud about the related premise that “service businesses” should be regarded as a threat.

The traditional view was voiced by representatives of the Economic and Community Development Commission (ECDC) at the December finance board meeting, and they are scheduled to put their ideas before the Board of Selectmen Wednesday night, Jan. 3.

“We’re concerned about the village — it’s the heart of this town,” John Devine, ECDC vice chairman, told the finance board in December.

“We’re behind the eight ball,” he said. “Thirty percent occupancy by service businesses on Main Street is not acceptable.”

Three vacancies were recently filled, Devine said. All three storefronts will be service businesses: a barber shop, an insurance office and a hair salon.

“That’s not the direction we want to go,” he said.

But Freidenrich wondered whether “service businesses” — viewed as problematic in the village because they aren’t traditional retailers — might be seen as long-term assets because they’re better positioned to survive the growing assault of online commerce.

“What businesses are a little more impervious to the e-tailing?” she asked.

“Restaurants, massage, tailors … exercise studios, hair salons — anything you cannot do on the computer.”

Outside 06877

The economic development commission wants to expand the draw of Ridgefield’s business center, bringing in people from beyond the local ZIP code — a goal it thought better served by a mix of unusual shops than by a street lined with hair salons or workout studios.

“The service businesses are more likely to attract people from within 06877,” said commission  chairman Arnold Light. “We’re looking to attract people from outside 06877.”

The ECDC was at the finance board’s Dec. 19 meeting to talk about its proposal for an incentive program to encourage “new first-floor retail merchants” in the village.

Discussions with “stakeholders,” including merchants, landlords, residents, and town officials, had shown broad support for its goal: “Without question, the overall judgment of all participants was a need for a higher percentage of first-floor boutique retail establishments in the village district,” the ECDC’s written proposal said.

The ECDC incentive plan involves creating a $24,000 line in the town budget to finance real estate tax incentives — that amount could provide $4,000 incentives to encourage six new retail tenants to sign three-year leases.

Be careful

Freidenrich wasn’t convinced.

“We’re going to give preference to a certain part of town,” she said. “I think we have to be really careful about choosing. Who’s to choose?”

Freidenrich, who owns Ross Bread bakery and coffee shop in Copps Hill Common, and finance board member Jessica Manzini, who has a dance studio, both said the barriers to businesses moving to the village also include landlords seeking to protect current tenants from competition.

One thing everyone seemed to agree on was that businesses can benefit from traffic drawn to neighboring businesses — especially if there are clusters of related businesses, like the food-oriented shops in Copps Hill Common.

“Why is our bakery successful?” said Freidenrich. “It’s successful because of symbiotic relationships with all the businesses around us.”

That’s the same principle behind the first-floor retail incentive — to encourage shops and stores that will increase Main Street’s attractiveness to shoppers.

“Retailers in town will benefit,” Devine said.

“We’re trying to protect our assets. There’s a lot of intangible here. Having a nice village helps property values.”