No dedicated economic development staff? No problem — or so those overseeing such efforts in Westport say.
“The three of us are working hard in this area,” said Selectwoman Jennifer Tooker, referring to herself, First Selectman Jim Marpe and Operations Director Sara Harris. “It’s something we would be doing in our jobs anyway — working to understand the needs of our business community.”
Harris is essentially the point person on economic development, having understood that would be part of the town’s operations when she took the director position last July.
“We’re in a unique situation,” Harris said. “We don’t have a lot of undeveloped land or commercial stock, so the typical economic development approach doesn’t always work here. What I’m doing is researching what could work for Westport as far as promoting the vitality of the commercial industry that we have.”
Westport’s position as one of the nation’s wealthiest municipalities can be both a plus and a drawback. It ranks 22nd in Bloomberg’s “America’s 100 Richest Places,” with its average household income in 2015 of $270,200 trailing only sixth-place Old Greenwich ($341,400) and ninth-place Darien ($313,300) in Connecticut.
With a median annual household income of $166,307 for the years 2012 through 2016, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, only 4.4 percent of Westport’s population was living in poverty. Westport’s property tax rate is just below 17 mills, driven by a growing Grand List of all taxable and tax-exempt property in the town that finds an average house assessment value of about $1 million, with retail, professional and other commercial development all on the rise.
A great place to be if you can afford it, then — but data that might scare off individuals and companies that feel they cannot.
The challenge, Harris said, is “to promote the vitality of the commercial industry we have here.” Even with its enviable economic position, “We’re working to encourage people from outside to look at opening a commercial business here.”
“We have a special kind of vibe in our community,” Tooker said. “We’ve kept our mill rate flat for the past four or five years, and we believe that we have the infrastructure and the kind of amenities that businesses want.”
Tooker came to office last November following a 22-year career at multinational property/casualty and life/health reinsurance company Gen Re in Stamford, where she served in various leadership and management positions on the marketing and underwriting side of the reinsurance business in both the U.S. and Europe.
Formerly a member of the Westport Board of Finance and chair of its Audit Subcommittee, as well as a member of the board of directors for the Women’s Business Development Council, she said she recognizes “how important it is for government and business to be working together and not be at odds with economic development and economic vitality.”
Part of that comes from Tooker’s frequent visits to small and medium businesses, she said. “It’s probably the best part of my job,” she remarked, “introducing myself and hearing how our business owners think about Westport. We have a talented workforce who are really prideful about our town.”
Not that there isn’t work to be done, she added. “We continue to invest in amenities from a government standpoint, including in our beach, library, downtown and our ‘second downtown,’ Saugatuck.”
Tooker pointed to Westport’s seventh annual Maker Faire — a “showcase of invention, creativity and resourcefulness” held on April 21 that nearly doubled its number of participants to 200 and recorded a 30 percent increase in attendance to 13,500 from 2017 — as indicative of the town’s commitment.
While Tooker said that she hasn’t heard any consistent concerns from Westport business owners during her visits, she noted that progress has been made to streamline its land use processes as part of an ongoing effort to “show that we are open and business-friendly.”
The town is also working to update its website to “make it a little more user-friendly and intuitive,” according to Harris. Work on the site has been slow, she noted; she would only say its completion could be expected “over the next several months.” A new logo and tagline will probably be introduced as well, she said.
Westport is also working to enlarge its social media presence, Harris said, on the likes of Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
The town is also hoping its involvement with the Fairfield County Five — a marketing collaborative whose members also include Stamford, Norwalk, Greenwich and Fairfield — will pay dividends down the line. “We’re in constant conversation with each other,” Harris said, noting that the group’s next event — pitching the region to New York City-based tech companies considering new offices or wholesale relocations — plays to Westport’s strengths.
“There’s so much rhetoric now about business and government not being on the same page on so many levels,” Tooker said. “We feel that the recipe for success is to focus on where we have common interests.
“We’ve had a robust commercial base for a number of years,” she added. “It’s important to all of us that we make sure our relationship with business continues to work for us.”