'Pressure on brick and mortar:' Selectmen back first-floor retail, if landlords join in

The selectmen voted to kick in $6,000 of taxpayers’ money — if it is matched with $6,000 from village landlords — to support the “first-floor retail” incentive program put together by the Economic and Community Development Commission (ECDC).

“I think it’s more palatable if everybody puts a little skin in the game,” Selectwoman Maureen Kozlark said.

The economic commission had proposed a $24,000 fund — just $12,000 for 2017-18, since the year’s already half over — to provide incentives to encourage new retail tenants in first-floor commercial space in the village, or Main Street, commercial district.

ECDC chairman Arnold Light and vice chairman John Devine presented the first-floor retail proposal at the selectmen’s Jan. 3 meeting, and argued that having town money to assist new retail tenants would help keep the village business environment thriving.

“If we got approval of this, we could start to market the town of Ridgefield as offering incentives for first-floor retail on Main Street,” Light told the selectmen. “We’d have something to offer them, other than a nice town.”

The incentive fund idea was developed after the concept of direct tax breaks ran into legal complications. The money would go to qualifying — truly retail — tenants signing three-year leases for empty first-floor space in the village commercial district.

With the incentive designed to offset real estate taxes that average $2.50 to $4 per square foot, the ECDC calculated that a $24,000 annual fund could support incentive payments of up to $4,000 each for four 1,000-square-foot leases. It would be first come, first served — when the fund ran out, no more incentives for that year.

The incentive program is seen by the ECDC as a less coercive alternative to a first-floor retail zoning restriction — a concept that met opposition from landlords in 2017.

Some selectmen wondered whether zoning, or a town ordinance mandating first-floor retail, might be more effective.

“Put in an ordinance,” said Selectwoman Barbara Manners.

“The question is, ‘Are we getting into land use, but adopting an ordinance?’” asked First Selectman Rudy Marconi.

“An ordinance may or may not be an option. Right now, we’re trying to stem the tide,” said Devine.

Amazon boxes

The program would mark Ridgefield as a place where area retailers should consider expanding.

“I want to go to New Canaan or Westport and say, ‘This is a business-friendly town,’” Devine said.

“I can appreciate the pressure on brick and mortar,” said Selectman Steve Zemo. “Just go to the Ridgefield Recycling Center and look at the Amazon boxes.”

He added, “Boutiques and the Nantucket thing — I don’t know that that’s there anymore.”

Changing, not dying

Selectman Bob Hebert was more upbeat, citing national statistics.

“Retailers had a great year last year, and 90% of it still goes through bricks and mortar,” he said. “Retail is changing, it’s not dying.”

“This is a win-win,” Hebert added. “If it doesn’t work, we don’t spend the money.”

In the end, the selectmen approved putting up half the money to give the ECDC an incentive fund of $12,000 for the rest of 2017-18 — provided landlords put up the other $6,000.

“I just don’t know if we’re sending you to Boston with half a tank of gas,” said Zemo.