Fairfield's business community sees 'brighter days ahead'

FAIRFIELD — Chamber of Commerce President Beverly Balaz remembers looking out of her office window when the pandemic first hit in March 2020 and seeing the Post Road deserted.

No one was visiting the local businesses and restaurants that line one of the town’s busiest sections.

Things started to turn a corner though as federal money came in to help small businesses. Restaurants and shops got creative, offering curbside pickup. Slowly, more people started venturing out as they became more comfortable, spurred on in recent weeks by the accessibility of the COVID vaccine.

Today, the street is bustling.

“It’s nice to look out and see traffic again,” Balaz said.

Like many, Fairfield’s business community was not immune to the effects of the pandemic. Some prominent downtown storefronts, like the former Victoria’s Secret location, are still vacant.

But it’s also bouncing back with a series of ribbon cuttings happening in the past few months.

“The pandemic has definitely impacted our small business community, but some businesses have been more affected than others due to forced closures, capacity restrictions and other operating limits as well as changing consumer behavior,” said Mark Barnhart, Fairfield’s director of community and economic development. “Restaurants were certainly among those most affected, along with some sectors of retail; lodging, hospitality and entertainment businesses; and personal services such as salons, gyms and fitness studios.”

Barnhart said there are more than 2,500 businesses in Fairfield. Some businesses close, while others open each year for a variety of reasons.

“Some attrition is normal, and is actually signs of a healthy economy,” Barnhart said.

Businesses are not required to register with the economic development office, but Barnhart said the office has seen roughly three dozen businesses close during this past year.

“Some have migrated to an online platform while others have closed permanently,” he said. “Not all of these closures were due to the pandemic. During that same period we have seen roughly the same number of new businesses emerging.”

Some of those new businesses have also popped up in sectors that have been hard hit by the pandemic. This includes Hai Lights Hair Salon, Cardio Kick and Puppy Love in the personal services sector. One 5 Boutique, B Chocolat, and Corner Keg & Spirits are new retail shops.

The Reef Shack, Sonia’s Gourmet Kitchen and Café Transilvania are all new restaurants.

“Business activity has slowly increased during the past few months, which is a positive sign,” Barnhart said.

Operating during a pandemic

Though she didn’t have specific numbers, Diane Holtz, owner of the women’s fashion boutique Apricot Lane on the Post Road, said she struggled during the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns.

“Last year, 2020, was a very challenging business environment and a very difficult year,” she said.

Given that many people were at home, fashion wasn’t a huge priority last year. Holtz said business remained slow in the early part of this year.

However, as more things open up and people try to return to some semblance of a normal life, she said she’s seen business pick up.

“Starting in March, it’s improved,” Holtz said. “It’s improving every week. People seem to be more optimistic and positive. As more events are planned, then business will be back to normal.”

At least one downtown business owner said the pandemic wasn’t damaging to him.

“We’ve actually grown over the past year and feel really humbled to have such a loyal client base,” said Greg French, president and co-owner of Henry C. Reid Jewelers in Fairfield.

He said the pandemic was an opportunity to complete a total renovation of the business’s building at 1591 Post Road, which was positive.

“We are now able to offer our clients a more comfortable, immersive experience,” French said.

The town and chamber have tried to help businesses where they can.

The town relaxed requirements and expedited permits so restaurants could start or expand outdoor dining. There were 60 restaurants with approved outdoor dining locations prior to the pandemic. The town approved 50 temporary outdoor dining locations this year, 31 of which were new spots, Barnhart said.

Mini grants of less than $5,000 were also available to small businesses with fewer than five full-time employees, targeting those small businesses that weren’t really able to get assistance through federal or state assistance programs. Barnhart said the town has awarded more than $311,000 in small business grants to 78 small businesses, 20 percent of which are in the food service industry.

The town and chamber also partnered to launch a year-round e-gift card program in October, which allows people to buy Fairfield-specific gift cards for more than 70 participating businesses in town.

“It’s an over-the-moon, fantastic response,” Balaz said. “What’s cool about this program, is the money stays in Fairfield.”

She said more than 2,000 e-gift cards have been purchased so far for a total value of nearly $58,300. About $18,400 has already been redeemed.

In terms of gift-card redemptions, restaurants make up 10 of the top 15 spots, Barnhart said.

The chamber and town also partnered on a number of restaurant and retail-focused promotions, including the Shop and Stroll events and the Love Local Bingo Card promotion.

They’re also continuing to provide information to the small business community about available resources and offering guidance so owners can comply with sector rules for their industry.

“Fortunately Fairfield has fared better than most,” Barnhart said. “Small business owners are resourceful by nature, and have adapted to this shifting landscape.”

Feeling optimistic

Balaz said they’re noticing a shift back to normal.

“We’re starting to see things open up,” she said. “We’re happy about that.”

She said people came out to the most recent Shop and Stroll, stopping by the chamber’s tent where she was able to meet a lot of the new families that moved to town during the pandemic.

“New people are coming in who are anxious to help the business community,” Balaz said.

Both Barnhart and Balaz expect the business climate to only improve as restrictions continue to ease and more people are vaccinated. This paves the way for even more sectors, including the entertainment and event businesses and venues.

“We’re hopeful,” she said. “We’re optimistic.”

The chamber is also looking at hosting two of their larger events at the end of the year.

“While this has been a very challenging year for many businesses, including restaurants, we believe that the worst is now behind us and look forward to brighter days ahead,” Barnhart said.