“It’ll drive the economy, it’ll drive the tax base, it’ll drive the rents,” John Devine said of the ‘first-floor retail’ incentive package the Economic and Community Development Commission has put together for the village business district.

The incentive package — headlined by three years’ abatement of town taxes — is scheduled to be presented at the Board of Selectmen’s Sept. 6 meeting by the Economic and Community Development Commission (ECDC).

Devine’s staccato summary of the program’s potential economic effects came as the ECDC discussed the package at its Aug. 7 meeting.

The tax incentives could accrue to both commercial landlords in the central business district — the business area roughly between Governor and Prospect streets — and new retail businesses there. The proposal would offer a three-year abatement of town real estate taxes on ground-floor commercial space leased to new or expanding retail tenants — an incentive to landlords to rent ground-floor space to retailers. It also includes a three-year abatement of the town’s personal property tax on business equipment associated with new or newly expanded retail operations on the ground floor — benefits which might often go directly to the retail tenants.

Cost

Town Assessor Al Garzi is working on a report on the potential cost of the tax breaks — an analysis the selectmen had requested when members of the ECDC first outlined for the board their thinking on incentives to encourage first-floor retail.

Devine told fellow ECDC members that Garzi’s report on the plan’s potential cost, in terms of reduced tax revenues, will be a significant factor in the decision the selectmen eventually make about the proposal.

But ECDC member Bob DeFalco was hopeful the selectmen would take a balanced view, recalling that Selectman Bob Hebert had said the immediate cost in lost tax revenue should be weighed against the town’s long-term goal of keeping the business district vital by encouraging a healthy of mix of retailers to attract shoppers.

“Bob Hebert said: ‘We want to know what it costs. We also want to know what it costs if we don’t,’” DeFalco reminded fellow board members.

Sweetening the pot

Other incentives the ECDC proposes to encourage first-floor retail include a waiver of town planning fees, and six months of free membership in the Downtown Ridgefield business association.

The ECDC proposes adding the tax breaks and other benefits to its existing package with a variety of incentives offered to businesses moving to town — which the ECDC says can be valued at up to $30,000. The current offerings to new retailers include: a year’s membership for two at the Ridgefield Golf Course; a three-month membership for every employee at the Ridgefield Recreation Center; a six-month trial membership in the Chamber of Commerce; a year’s free web page on the Destination Ridgefield site; a year’s membership at the Ridgefield Playhouse for each employee, and admission to two performances there; a year’s membership at the Keeler Tavern Museum; free attendance for two at a Ridgefield Symphony performances; free passes and discounted rates at The Gym fitness studio.

Kiosks and signs

In a second recommendation — aside from the proposed incentive packages, the ECDC suggests a variety of measures to make the village more attractive.

These include the addition of an information kiosk and “architecturally designed” signs pointing the way to destinations, such as parking, the police station, and the Ridgefield Playhouse.

The ECDC also suggests a review and possible tightening of sign regulations — a task that would likely have to be taken on by the Planning and Zoning Commission.

Defining retail

Devine outlined for other ECDC members progress that had been made on the incentive plan at a recent meeting with planning and zoning officials.

“We spend a lot of time going over the definition of retail,” he said. “...There’s no ordinance that defines it.”

For the purposes of qualifying for tax abatements and other incentives in its plan, the ECDC proposes that retail be defined as: “A place of business whose primary goal is the sale of goods to customers. Professional service businesses, such as banks, salons, real estate offices, insurance agencies etc., do not qualify. Service businesses that sell products in addition to their services, such as beauty salons and nail salons, do not qualify.”

Restaurants would be considered retail establishments.

Under the plan, applications for tax incentives could be reviewed by the ECDC.

“We become the checks and balances,” Devine said.

Nothing mandatory

Both the selectmen and the Planning and Zoning Commission have periodically discussed the idea of a “first-floor retail” ordinance or regulation — something numerous other towns have adopted in a variety of forms. But the idea of a regulation requiring first-floor space be leased only to retailers has met with opposition and has never been adopted. Concerns have included commercial landlords’ worry that their ability to rent empty space would be limited, leading to more vacant storefronts.

The proposal reviewed by the ECDC on Aug. 7 said: “In the absence of a mandatory ordinance, the ECDC recommends a package of financial incentives that will encourage landlords to view first-floor retail as a good business decision for themselves and the for the local economy.”

ECDC Chairman Arnold Light had a positive view of the town offering incentives rather than a regulation.

“What I like about this, it’s not mandatory,” Light said. “It’s not a rule, it’s not a law.”