Newtown’s business community is relatively strong, but has plenty of room for improvement.
So said the town’s newly elected First Selectman Dan Rosenthal in a recent interview with the Business Journal. Having begun his term on Dec. 1, Rosenthal described his priorities as strategic planning, economic development and enhanced communications.
One way of accomplishing all three will be the establishment of Newtown’s first business council, he said. “I see it as consisting of eight to 10 local business owners, even those who may not live in Newtown, drawn from retail, restaurants, industrial, medical, and so on — something that can establish a friendly relationship with the business community and provide ideas that can flow back to the local government.”
Having already spoken with a number of businesses and the Chamber of Commerce, Rosenthal said he expected the council to be formed early in the new year. His own business resume includes six-plus years as the director of marketing and client service at Bronson Point Management in Fairfield and 10 years as director of client service at Pequot Capital Management in Westport.
Although he had positive words for the nine volunteer members of Newtown’s Economic Development Commission, Rosenthal said that establishing and maintaining a list of prospective companies to attract to the town is a high priority. “It’s through sales that you control your own destiny.”
Rosenthal said that commercial properties in Newtown account for less than 10 percent of its tax base. “It could be a lot better,” he said.
“I’m taking a significant number of meetings every month with businesses that are here and with some that may be looking to relocate here. That’s the only way we can change the dynamic and build out,” he said.
As a candidate for the town’s top office, “What I presented (during the campaign), and what I think helped get me elected, was trying to bring in new ideas to broaden Newtown and its appeal” to potential businesses and residents.
Rosenthal also expects to reach out to such bodies as the Bridgeport Regional Business Council, the Danbury Chamber of Commerce and others for input about what has worked for them. In addition, “We can work together instead of staying strictly within our borders” in trying to attract new companies, he said.
One reality that Newtown will have to face is the rescission of state funds as a result of the new state budget. Although the town feared it would lose some $7 million to $10 million under Gov. Dannel Malloy’s original budget proposal, it will actually lose $500,000 under the compromise budget that was passed on Oct. 31.
“I’d rather not lose any money,” Rosenthal said, “but we didn’t fall off a cliff.” Nevertheless, he said, the state budget should serve as “a signpost that we need to wean ourselves off of state revenue.”
Thus the need to attract businesses and retain existing ones looms especially large, he said.
One large commercial development, the Village at Lexington Gardens — a 65,500-square-foot building complex at 32 Church Hill Road — is already filling up, with anchor tenant Dental Associates, Newtown Savings Bank and Avance Day Spa joined on Dec. 1 by the upscale Market Place Kitchen & Bar.
Commercial development once planned for the 185-acre Fairfield Hills campus — former home to a psychiatric hospital that closed in 1995 — may also get another look, Rosenthal said.
Having purchased the campus from the state in 2004, Newtown officials originally envisioned it as a mixed-use area and favored a 20-year lease plan for businesses there. When that concept stalled during the recession, a more community-oriented approach was undertaken.
The result is that Fairfield Hills is now the location of the Newtown Municipal Center, the town’s volunteer ambulance corps, a sports and exercise facility and a community center under construction, funded by a $10 million grant from General Electric and $5 million from the town. An additional $3 million senior center component is being covered by town bonding.
Also under discussion is a new police station, though whether that ends up in Fairfield Hills is yet to be determined.
“More attractive lease terms” than 20 years “could be a catalyst” in reviving the site’s commercial prospects, Rosenthal said.
The father of three, Rosenthal is the third member of his family to serve as Newtown first selectman. He follows his grandfather Jack, who held the office from 1976 to 1987, and father Herb, whose term lasted from 1997 to 2007.
From his grandfather, who died in 2013, Rosenthal said he learned about “the power of the job to help people,” recalling how as a child he’d frequently accompany his grandfather around town.
Rosenthal’s father, who also served as selectman for two years, “can be a great resource to me,” he added. “He took a very hands-off approach to my campaign — he didn’t push me towards it at all — but I know that he’s proud.”
Rosenthal took a sabbatical from Bronson Point Management in the middle of last year to spend time with his daughter, who will graduate from high school in the spring. When he thought about returning, he said, “I saw that there were many of the same issues there that I’d been facing when I left.” Instead, with the encouragement of friends and his wife, he decided to run for town office.
Asked whether one of his children might become a fourth generation to hold the office, he laughed. “We might consider counseling to get that thought out of them,” he said.
Nevertheless, Rosenthal said, he’d be proud if his children pursued public service as adults. It’s in the family: one of his brothers, John Rosenthal, was recently elected an alderman in Hudson in upstate New York.