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Thursday, April 28, 2011

Mood Positive Despite Shift in Fairfield Business Mix

Mood Positive Despite Shift 
in Fairfield Business Mix:
Business leaders share their 
unique perspectives
(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

“Taste of Tuesday” Opens Playhouse Season

“Taste of Tuesday” Opens Playhouse Season
By Mike Lauterborn
(for Westport News)

Westport, CT – A delightful mix-and-mingle, that has become a new and fond tradition, kicked off a season that already shows great promise.

Held early evening Tuesday April 26 in and about the Lucille Lortel White Barn Center at Westport Country Playhouse, 25 Powers Court, “Taste of Tuesday” treated 400 subscribers to wine, sushi and live music, preceding the opening of “Beyond Therapy”, the first performance of the facility’s 2011 season.

Jen Bond Huisking, Community Relations Liaison, recalled how the “Taste of Tuesday” tradition got started. “The first event of the series was in 2007, designed as an audience cultivation event,” she said. “It was a way for us to build energetic audiences for the first preview play. It offered a very attractive price point for the package, allowing someone to experience the Playhouse at a reasonable cost for the first time or to allow a regular subscriber to bring friends.”

Huisking added, “We definitely wanted a pre-show party but also to partner with local businesses that support our programming. We always have live local music, and wines from Castle Wines & Spirits, which samples six different wines each Tuesday event.”

Playhouse Director of Marketing David Byrd contributed some additional background. “There are five plays that debut through the season, which runs April through the first week of November, and the ‘Taste’ is held before each first performance,” he said. “Besides Castle Wines, we are featuring this evening food from Matsu Sushi and Westport guitarist Gene Pino.”

Byrd further explained, “Originally the event was just value added, but then, due to its popularity, it became a subscription-only opportunity. Lucky for us and our partners, we have sold out all the ‘Taste of Tuesday’ events for the year, capping attendance at 400 which allows us to accommodate the group easily and ensures a positive experience.”

Byrd said “Beyond Therapy” is a fun season starter. “By Christopher Durang, the play is a wickedly funny look at the lives of the single and those in search of relationships,” he said. “Our program for the year is very eclectic and each play complements the next, hand picked by our artistic director, Mark Lamos, with our audience in mind.”

“Taste” is one of a series of ancillary events the Playhouse hosts. Others include nights out for realtors, the gay community, ladies only, couples and young professionals. “We’ll work with any group that wants to engage with us,” said Byrd.

Paul Teoh, co-owner of Matsu Sushi, was glad to support. “We have been in Westport for eight years and gained a lot from the town,” he said. “We like to support the local community and give back through events like this. We’ve been supporting the Playhouse for the past two years.”

Thoroughly enjoying the soiree, Jeanne Bodnar, with Dave Walker, both from Ridgefield, said, “I’ve been a subscriber for 20 years. It’s great. This is our second year doing the ‘Taste of Tuesday.’”

“It’s a great addition,” said Walker. “Jeanne won a nice piece of jewelry at one last year.”

“We like the mingling, you get to see a great play and the price is right,” Bodnar added.

Jinah Yun, from Stamford, another attendee, agreed with Bodnar’s assessment. “I’ve been a season ticket holder for two years and have been to every ‘Taste of Tuesday’ in that time,” she said. “We always get these tickets. The music and wine tasting is nice and many friends are here. And it’s great to be one of the first to see a new show.”

Playhouse staffer Huisking best summed up the experience. “This is a great way to come together and celebrate live theater.”

Senior Citizens Connect to Helpful Resources at Fair

Senior Citizens Connect to 
Helpful Resources at Fair:
Senior Center and Police Dept. 
host morning event
(Posted to 4/28)
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Fairfield, CT – The event was a confidence builder and one-stop opportunity for seniors to learn about a multitude of resources available to them.

Held Wednesday morning at Fairfield Senior Center, 100 Mona Terrace, a Senior Citizen Fair, co-sponsored by the Center and Fairfield Police Dept., featured over a dozen vendors offering senior citizens services and information about critical issues such as emergency preparedness, dietary needs, fraud/scam protection and auto safety.

“We did this a year ago and it wasn’t well publicized, so attendance wasn’t what we hoped for,” said Claire Grace, Director of Human Services at the Senior Center. “We gained much better exposure this year and have brought in agencies that focus on senior issues.”

Helping Grace coordinate the event, Fairfield Police Sgt. Sue Lussier said, “The program essentially provides information and services to seniors for their protection, security and well-being. We have the Office of Probate here, members from the Citizens Emergency Response Team (CERT), the Attorney General’s office and many other departments. It’s a great way for seniors to gain confidence in knowing they have free resources to help protect them.”

With regard to the police department’s contribution, Lussier said, “We have several helpful programs, such as ‘Are You O.K.?’ in which a senior’s phone number is placed in a computer that calls them at a precise time of day when they would be home and, if they don’t answer, we send an officer out to check on them. We also have an Alzheimer’s registration form, wherein we log photos and a profile of a person, which is kept at our front desk and would help us locate a person if they wandered off. The Yellow Dot program helps emergency personnel in the event of a medical issue while a senior is driving. A sticker on the back window indicates that driver information is in the glovebox.”

Lussier said scams committed against seniors are a key issue. “The elderly are often exploited through the internet, phone scams, contractors, etc.,” she said. “We go out to public spaces in the community, talk about scams, how to protect your identity, how to authenticate contractors, etc.”

Officer George Buckmir echoed Lussier’s take. “Scams and fraud are a hot issue, especially at this time of year, with tax season,” he said. “You get fraudulent emails from IRS posers seeking personal and bank information. We advise never to give this information out and to contact the organization directly or call the police department.”

On hand from People’s Bank, VP of Financial Services Marilyn Wiegman, spoke to the topic as well. “I can remember my mother getting phone calls all the time, asking for money and wanting information,” she said. “She wouldn’t want to be rude. I would say, ‘Mom, just be polite and hang up.’ The con artists are so convincing. They do this for a living all day long.”

Scams were a particular concern for senior citizen Rose Dacunto. “I think there should be more publicity about scams,” she said. “Seniors are very vulnerable and family oriented. Callers may mention family names as a way to gain trust and get information. You have to be careful who you associate with and talk to.”

CERT coordinator Norma Peterson’s focus was on educating seniors about what needs to be done to prepare for a disaster. “In a major emergency, response teams may be delayed, so seniors need to have basic disaster supplies at home while they wait for help,” she said. “This includes a three-day supply of water, flashlights and batteries, a battery-operated radio to receive instructions and non-perishable food.”

Making sure seniors’ nutritional needs were met was Bob Lewis’ concern. An administrative assistant with Angel Food Ministries, which offers meal services at affordable prices, said, “With the cost of living where it is, often seniors can’t afford to support themselves. We offer full meals that are available for pick up at the Covenant Church of Easton. These really help people make ends meet.”

Senior Citizen Catherine Karosy was pleased with the range of information made available at the Fair. “The Yellow Dot program is good as I usually drive alone and would help emergency services help me if I had a problem,” she said. “The Agency on Aging also had a lot of info to help with future needs. They should have more of these events.”