Newtown is hoping to take advantage of the reported exodus from New York to Connecticut, revamping its Economic and Community Development Department as part of a rebranding effort aimed at drawing businesses and homebuyers alike.
Noting that the rebranding was first discussed late last year, First Selectman Dan Rosenthal said the town of approximately 30,000 is now “trying to get back on track” following what he said he hoped was the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. As of July 2, the town had recorded 243 positive cases and 42 deaths from the virus.
The rebranding “definitely helps in that overall effort,” Rosenthal said.
According to Christal Preszler, deputy director of Economic and Community Development (ECD), “We don’t have an identity we feel strongly attached to — but we’re not replacing the rooster,” a reference to the bantam atop the Newtown Meeting House, which allegedly was used by French soldiers for target practice during the Revolutionary War.
To develop that new identity, the town engaged Haven Creative Agency, based in Waxhaw, North Carolina, to complete the first phase of the initiative. That includes an online survey of residents — the cost of which Preszler set at about $14,000 — which began on June 12 and ended on July 10. The town’s goal of receiving at least 400 responses was easily eclipsed by the end of June, Preszler said.
The effort will also involve consolidating Newtown’s four websites — each on its own platform — into one central web presence, she said. Ultimately the idea is to develop a key identity for ECD, she said, by integrating new marketing messaging and visual elements, including its own logo.
Survey results are expected to be tabulated by the end of this month, Preszler said.
Both she and Rosenthal said they were optimistic that Newtown could benefit from reports that thousands of people have relocated to Connecticut from New York, primarily as a result of the pandemic.
The U.S. Postal Service recently reported that more than 16,000 people switched their addresses from the Empire State to the Nutmeg State since March, when COVID-19’s presence first began to be felt.
On the commercial side, Greenwich has reportedly been the big beneficiary, mostly from small financial firms relocating from Manhattan. While it’s unlikely such companies would come to Newtown, Rosenthal said he was confident that the municipality will also benefit, noting that Boost Bowls — a Bethel-based health-food eatery that also has a location in Southbury — is coming to town, and that NewSylum — the town’s much-delayed second brewery — finally opened in early June.
The latter, at 36 Keating Farms Ave., is the first commercial concern to open in Fairfield Hills. Developing that land — formerly the campus of a psychiatric hospital — is a concept that Rosenthal has been pushing for some time.
A round of informational meetings for residents — who have generally disapproved of developing Fairfield Hills, due mostly to its cost — and developers were interrupted by the coronavirus.
“We have a great opportunity to take those buildings, which have been long-abandoned and are in pretty bad shape, and make something beautiful,” he said. “And we also have a need for housing on both ends of the spectrum.
“I think (the idea) works,” Rosenthal added, “but it’s a question of whether or not the public does.”
He said he hopes to include a referendum on the topic on the November ballot.
Since acquiring the campus in 2004, Newtown has spent $38 million on demolition and construction costs; maintenance costs run around $200,000 a year.
Although data on Newtown’s residential market was not immediately available, the first selectman said that it was his understanding that things are looking up, at least anecdotally.
The real estate website Zillow puts the median home value in Newtown at $389,444, and predicts that they will fall another 3% within the next year. Nevertheless, it ranks the town as a “very hot” buyers’ market, an indication that the volatility caused by the pandemic could ultimately pay off for the municipality.
“Most of our businesses are open again, or are very close to it,” Rosenthal said. “They’re being creative in terms of their approach to reopening — and we’re trying to be creative as well.”