West­port looks to fill the gaps in store­fronts down­town

The Norwalk Hour - - FRONT PAGE - By Jor­dan Grice

Re­tail isn’t what it used to be, and down­towns across the coun­try have felt the sting as va­cant store­fronts line Main Street cor­ri­dors. Even a town like West­port isn’t im­mune.

This af­flu­ent com­mu­nity’s down­town has long been seen as a des­ti­na­tion for vis­it­ing shop­pers, but, over the last few years, a se­ries of de­par­tures in prime lo­ca­tions have rid­dled the area with empty store­fronts up and down the side­walk. Lo­cal lead­ers have taken no­tice.

“I don’t deny there are va­cant store­fronts, but, then again, I think part of that is tra­di­tional na­tional re­tail­ers are re­think­ing their busi­ness model,” said First Select­man Jim Marpe. “There are a lot of things go­ing on to try and keep the shop­pers com­ing down­town and to keep busi­ness com­ing into West­port, and to help boost the econ­omy, as well.”

Those plans in­clude ad­dress­ing in­fras­truc­ture needs as well as im­ple­ment­ing mar­ket­ing strate­gies to at­tract new busi­nesses to the area.

On­go­ing com­pe­ti­tion

Chain stores have taken an on­go­ing hit from grow­ing on­line shop­ping trends, which has led to hun­dreds of clo­sures na­tion­wide. West­port has been no ex­cep­tion.

“We’re see­ing what we re­fer to as the Ama­zon ef­fect tak­ing place,” Marpe said, adding that of­fi­cials are try­ing to ad­dress the de­cline in re­tail by at­tract­ing dif­fer­ent busi­nesses to the area, in­clud­ing tech con­cepts and other star­tups that wouldn’t be as af­fected by the wave of e-com­merce

On­go­ing de­vel­op­ment of a new mall in South Nor­walk has added an­other chal­lenge to the lo­cal re­tail scene, ac­cord­ing to mar­ket ob­servers.

As de­vel­op­ers eye a fall 2019 de­but of the SoNo Col­lec­tion, Bruce Wet­ten­stein of West­port-based firm Vi­dal Wet­ten­sten said some re­tail­ers are con­cerned what that could mean for busi­ness.

“There some re­tail­ers that are very ner­vous about the cus­tomer base be­ing drawn away,” he said.

Ne­go­tiable rate

Rents in de­sir­able down­towns are never cheap, but rea­sons be­hind the large num­ber of va­can­cies in town are about more than the cost per square foot.

“Rent the land­lords set is driven by what the mar­ket is, and if the mar­ket is de­clin­ing then the rents are go­ing to have to de­cline, as well,” said Tor­rey Brooks, of Brooks, Tor­rey & Scott real es­tate agency.

As the mar­ket shifts, how­ever, Wet­ten­stein said some prop­erty own­ers and land­lords have been look­ing to charge rents that are higher than ex­pected.

Lo­cal shop own­ers see that as an

op­por­tu­nity to ne­go­ti­ate. “The rents were a bit in­tim­i­dat­ing, but I think that there have been so many va­can­cies for so long ev­ery­body is will­ing to ne­go­ti­ate at this point,” An­nette Nor­ton, owner of Savvy & Grace, said.

Lo­cal ap­peal

To com­bat de­par­tures and help at­tract new busi­ness, West­port is one of five mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties in the Fair­field County Five col­lab­o­ra­tive work­ing to mar­ket the re­gion to new busi­nesses in neigh­bor­ing New York.

But while of­fi­cials and bro­kers try to at­tract new busi­nesses and sub­se­quently out-of-town cus­tomers, ex­ist­ing mer­chants feel there should be a greater fo­cus get­ting lo­cal res­i­dents to shop there. “In­stead of rent­ing th­ese empty spots to just more re­tail stores, we need to get the com­mu­nity back,” Nor­ton said, adding that land­lords should look to more ex­pe­ri­ence-based ten­ants that can draw res­i­dent to the area.

Nor­ton opened her store a lit­tle over a year ago, sell­ing an as­sort­ment of gifts for ba­bies, wed­dings, home and per­sonal items. While her gift shop has be­come a des­ti­na­tion for tourists, she along with other store own­ers ex­pressed a need to garner the same ef­fect on lo­cals.

West­port has plenty of ameni­ties, in­clud­ing walk­a­bil­ity, which many towns work hard to ob­tain.

Vic­to­ria Schallert and Ce­leste Puglisi, own­ers of The Brown­stone, said the area lacks a rea­son to draw res­i­dents for ex­tended pe­ri­ods of time, which is cru­cial to drive busi­ness.

“The town has to fig­ure out what they want to do and the res­i­dents will have to fig­ure out what they want to do. And if they want to have a town that is vi­brant, they are go­ing to have to have a talk and say, ‘This is what we want,’ ” Schallert said.

That in­cludes monthly events, farm­ers mar­kets and in­vest­ing in com­mu­nity-fo­cused de­vel­op­ment, which falls on the shoul­ders of town of­fi­cials.

“There needs to be more things go­ing on here in the down­town com­mu­nity, and I feel like it al­ways falls on deaf ears,” Puglisi said.

Flood­ing prob­lem

Along with its de­sir­able water­front lo­ca­tion, West­port has faced a long­stand­ing flood­ing prob­lem, which crit­ics say is caused by in­fras­truc­ture flaws.

While be­ing on the Sau­gatuck River pro­vides a scenic en­vi­ron­ment, when it pours over­flow ends up seep­ing into stores clos­est to the wa­ter.

Stores along the river­side, like the former Nike store, which closed last year, re­main empty, which Schallert said is likely to stay that way un­til town of­fi­cials find a way to cur­tail the is­sue.

“They are try­ing to fig­ure out how to make that work here, and, un­til that is done, I don’t think they re­ally want peo­ple tak­ing those build­ings be­cause they keep flood­ing,” she said.

Jor­dan Grice / Hearst Con­necti­cut Me­dia

Down­town West­port has long been seen as a des­ti­na­tion for shop­pers, but lately its num­ber of va­cant store­fronts has grown.

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