Home Construction Fairfield unveils plan for economic development in shadow of GE’s departure

Fairfield unveils plan for economic development in shadow of GE’s departure

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Some 18 months in the making, “Creating a Strategic Vision for Fairfield,” a newly issued report from the Fairfield Economic Development Commission, couldn’t have come at a better time, according to FEDC Director Mark Barnhart.

“We became aware of General Electric’s decision (to leave Fairfield) in the midst of putting the report together,” he said. “That just added further impetus to getting it done.”

The report – prepared with the assistance of the Connecticut Economic Resource Center, a nonprofit corporation located in Rocky Hill – focuses on several key areas, including improving the regulatory process; supporting mixed-use development opportunities around transit; strengthening cooperation with the town’s two universities, Fairfield and Sacred Heart; and developing a consistent marketing and communications plan.

It’s the town’s first such effort in at least a decade. “I’m not sure when the last one was done,” Barnhart said, “and I’ve been here for 10 years.”

The report involved high-level stakeholder interviews, focus group sessions, public workshops, and a business and resident survey. “We were pleased by the conversations we had with various stakeholders,” Barnhart said. “Generally, most people had positive things to say about the business climate locally. It’s always good to get some confirmation that you’re going in the right direction.”

“I think it’s vitally important that we periodically re-examine the work that we are doing in view of the competition and industrywide best practices,” First Selectman Mike Tetreau said. “Fairfield continues to be a great place in which to live, work and have a business, but we are constantly searching for areas in which we can improve.”

Since 1990, Fairfield has seen population growth of almost 14 percent – as of July 1 it stood at 60,870 – while the state’s growth has been below 6 percent. Although the state projects a slight population decline in the town from 2015 to 2025, “indicators on housing construction in Fairfield suggest that projection may be overly pessimistic,” the report stated. The town ranks 11th in the state for median household income and 15th for per capita income, “and on both measures it is well above the state averages,” it added.

On the regulatory front, Barnhart said that the town plans to work on developing a more streamlined and coordinated system that will help to refocus its permitting process for better ease of use. Such efforts would aim to increase density in certain locations; rezone certain parcels for mixed use or commercial use; revise a rule rather than continuing to grant exceptions through the Zoning Board of Appeals process; and create a process for fast-track permitting.

Transit-oriented development emerged as a key to Fairfield’s future growth. Interviewees noted the benefits the town derives from its three train stations offering service on the Metro-North Railroad, but also recommended expanded train service to New York City and Stamford and connecting the Fairfield Metro-North station to Bridgeport via a pedestrian bridge. Encouraging more pedestrian and bike-friendly options was also cited as important to future growth.

Sacred Heart’s $31.5 million acquisition of the former GE campus is being viewed as a net positive, Barnhart said, even though the property will no longer be subject to the same property tax payments given SHU’s nonprofit status. GE had been Fairfield’s largest property taxpayer for a number of years, paying $1.5 million for real estate property and another $291,000 in personal property taxes.

“We are heartened by the deal,” he said, “given their promise of future investment in computer sciences and the like.” A potential business incubator would further create jobs that could at least partly offset the loss of GE, he said.

Other potential development targets include the Black Rock Turnpike thoroughfare, with an aim toward improving its visual appearance and increasing the amount of shared parking, and the former Exide Battery Plant, where years of remediation activity continues.

The town is also addressing its sea-level concerns, Barnhart said. Fairfield, hit particularly hard by Superstorm Sandy, is one of only eight communities in the state to qualify for FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program Community Rating System. The floodplain management activities – spearheaded by James R. Wendt, the then-planning and zoning assistant director who recently replaced the retiring Joseph Devonshuk as director – qualified it for a 10 percent discount in the premiums cost of flood insurance. The 2,717 flood insurance policyholders in Fairfield are now able to save an estimated total of $433,000 annually as a result of the town’s participation in the CRS program.

Barnhart said that Fairfield is redoubling its efforts to publicize what it is doing via a more concerted marketing and communications plan. In addition to the tourist-aimed ExperienceFairfield website launched last year, the town has introduced a bi-weekly newsletter as a marketing resource for the town’s businesses.

Work on many of these initiatives will begin within a few months, he said.

Barnhart added that he doesn’t expect another 10 years to pass before the local government takes another snapshot to determine where it is and where it could/should be heading.

“It’s a strategic exercise,” he said. “I’d say that every five years or so we will be doing this.”

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