in Fairfield Business Mix:
Business leaders share their
(Appeared on front page of
Fairfield Sun 4/28)
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2011. All Rights Reserved.
Fairfield, CT – A challenging economy has had its effect on Fairfield, but local business owners remain steadfast and say the climate is becoming more positive. Fairfield Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Patricia Ritchie shares their hopeful outlook though expressed concern about the shift in the business mix over the last few years. The Sun captured their respective viewpoints in recent meetings in the downtown center.
The helicopter view
It was August 2001 when Ritchie started with the Chamber. “It was an extremely challenging time to take the reins of an association that focuses on business, given the events of 9/11 that would occur just four weeks later,” she said. “No one’s mind was on business. I remember we had a big town-wide event planned, called Celebrate Fairfield, and had to cancel it. People were coming out of the city on the Metro North train covered with ash, looking zombie-like and trying to make their way home. My daughter, who lived in the East Village, called me that day saying, ‘The city is on fire’. She had small children in the schools there. It was a horrible day.”
Though 9/11 was certainly a troubling event, Fairfield, at the time of Ritchie’s hire, was at the outset of a downtown renaissance. “The Fairfield Dept. Store had sat idle, then was razed, and the Borders complex was being established,” she said. “It helped buoy the local economy and made people forget what was going on in the world around them. Other businesses were attracted, which continued to spur an upswing.”
At the same time, the success of the retail environment precluded the mom-and-pop stores, which could not afford the new rental costs and gradually began to disappear. “This was an expected, though unfortunate, result of the trend,” said Ritchie. “There was a sudden arrival of national stores like Chico’s, The Gap, Victoria’s Secret and more, which found the local demographic attractive. And not only retailers arrived, but restaurants, too. Why? Because now you had a complete environment where one could shop, dine, stroll, sit in a park, look at art, sip coffee. It was becoming what a downtown area should be to be sustainable.”
Over the last couple of years, that balance has begun to shift according to Ritchie. “Former retail space may now house a real estate agent, dentist, insurance company or investment firm,” she said. “Rental costs have become prohibitive for many. Wall Street’s tumble also had a significant effect on the spending habits of Fairfield residents, many of whom are employed in the financial industry.”
Ritchie said the Chamber can’t fix Wall Street but it can advocate for small business people. “They need our representation not only on the local level but state and federal level, too,” she said. “On the local level, we are most effective of course. We’re all about small business, and can offer people the opportunity to network, advertise, and participate in expos and leads groups. We also feature a long-standing banner campaign drilling home the mantra ‘Shop Local’ and support businesses who support local causes with their donations.”
Chamber-sponsored events like the recent Spring Fling also help spur business, said Ritchie. “That’s our premiere networking event, open to the public,” she said. “It’s an opportunity to eat, drink, be merry and do your five-minute elevator speech. It gets you in touch with business people and the community at large.”
Ritchie said the Chamber’s product is opportunity. “If you’re going to join, and don’t participate, you’re wasting your membership money,” she said. “I encourage members to pick one thing to get behind – business after hours with wine and hors d’oeuvres, for instance. Putting your face out there so people remember you and interact with you is important. People want to do business with people they know and like.”
Ritchie has a positive view about Fairfield’s business future. “What goes down, must come back up, especially in a town like Fairfield,” she said. “We’ve got the best schools, beautiful beaches, good shopping, accessible transportation. It’s just a fabulous location. Border’s closing was certainly a shock. I thought Fairfield was safe. It will leave a huge void unless Ken Kleban, the landlord, has something up his sleeve that he hasn’t divulged yet. It will be interesting to see what emerges. I hope it’s retail.”
A newcomer’s outlook
Some of the resources that Ritchie mentioned were influential in Colony Grill’s decision to land in town. Ken Martin, a partner at the 1520 Post Road restaurant, which opened in May 2010, said, “We were attracted to Fairfield’s dynamic demographic, its ideal location to the train and beach, a college campus under a mile away, great traffic flow on the Post Road and a nice mix of families, commuters and students.”
He said business has been good, the community has been supportive and that there had been good guidance from town government. At the same time, he said, “I think the economy is still very difficult for a lot of people out there, including restaurants, though we’ve been insulated from some of the hardship due to our menu of pizza and drinks. And despite a difficult economy, people still want to enjoy themselves and see their friends. They just need to decide what’s affordable.”
“We want other businesses – restaurants and retail included – to do well, as it helps everyone,” he said. “If we hear about a restaurant going out of business, it’s not good news. We feel we’re part of an extended community.” Martin said it’s important for the community to support local businesses, though businesses have a responsibility to deliver a quality experience, too.
Martin said the Chamber has been doing a good job trying to get people together, providing businesses exposure opportunities and giving good feedback to owners about trends. “But a business owner can’t depend on people or the Chamber,” he said. “The business has to do the right thing and not cut corners, staff or quality. Consumers will respond.”
Martin was disappointed to see Border’s leave but said that was the situation the business was in. “We’re confident Fairfield will attract another viable business to downtown,” he said.
The historical perspective
Fairfield Center Jewelers, which has been located at 1498 Post Road since 1954, is a testament to the resilience of Fairfield business. Owner Bob Sussman said Fairfield was a growth route at that time and up and coming.
“There have definitely been ups and downs here over the 55-plus years we’ve been in town,” said Sussman, “but that’s just how business is. I don’t think anyone’s exempt, but how we’ve weathered the bad times is attributable to our family’s business experience. My grandfather was particularly resilient and survived the Great Depression, and passed down certain survival skills.”
With regard to the local business community, Sussman said, “I think Fairfield itself is somewhat insulated from the woes of the economy, though we’ve certainly felt it. Customers have been more discretionary in spending their money. You have to deliver a good product at a fair value. I feel the climate is happier. People are genuinely a little less stressed about money.”
Sussman said the Chamber is very supportive and the town does its best, “though we’d all like to see a mix of mom-and-pop stores, but that’s a function of the landlords not of the town. It’s not right for people to complain to the town about who comes in. It’s entirely up to the person that owns the property.”
Like Martin and Ritchie, Sussman was sad to see Border’s go but said that local business must be supported by the people that live here. “You can’t be upset if you don’t support them. I have such faith in the Klebans that I have no worries about the space. It will be appropriate and work for the town.”
Fairfield Chamber of Commerce the backbone of local business
The Fairfield Chamber of Commerce, located above Quattro Pazzi restaurant at 1597 Post Road, is the champion of small business in Fairfield. Initially known as the Fairfield Board of Trade, the Chamber was founded in 1946 by a handful of business owners. Today, 350-400 businesses and sole proprietors are members.
The Chamber helps promote local business, forge community relationships and spur networking through several large annual events. On June 25-26, the Chamber hosts a juried Arts & Crafts show, which attracts about 100 artisans from around New England. A Trick or Treat on Safety event at Halloween draws people from all over the region. Santa’s Arrival, which will be marked on Nov. 26 this year, features such highlights as buggy rides and an animal zoo. Non-profits typically sponsor these activities as an opportunity to showcase themselves.
To steer consumer attention to local business, the Chamber offers “Chamber Bucks”, essentially gift certificates to member restaurants and retailers. The Chamber also produces an area map widely used by the town, universities and relocation services. In early summer, the organization will release a new town-specific shopping, dining and entertainment guide.
For more information about the Fairfield Chamber of Commerce, visit www.FairfieldCTChamber.com