Fairfield's business scene is expanding slightly slower than the rest of Connecticut's, according to a recent study by the Secretary of State's office. Yet the numbers belie what local experts say is a nascent rebound in this town's market.

The state's report, issued in April, compares the number of business openings and closures during the first quarter of 2010 with those numbers from 2009.

Across the state, business closures were down 17 percent this year compared with last year, while business openings were down 0.8 percent over last year, the report said.

Fairfield's numbers were slightly more sluggish. There were 141 business openings during the first quarter of this year, three fewer than were recorded in early 2009, a 2.1-percent drop, according to the report.

Meanwhile, 51 businesses closed here in early 2010, four fewer than during last year's opening quarter. That drop, of 7.3 percent, trails the state average by some 10 percentage points.

Even so, Fairfield has experienced a net increase of 179 businesses during the past two opening quarters. And this year brought a net increase of 90 businesses, one more than was seen during the first three months of 2009.

Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz said the overall numbers in the report indicate that the economic decline is abating in Connecticut.

"A year ago, many entrepreneurs were fearful for their own survival, but one year later the picture has brightened somewhat, meaning fewer businesses are shutting their doors and hopefully more jobs are being spared," she said.

"We are still not seeing the number of new business start-ups we want to see but that too is improving," she continued. "It is my sincere hope that the sharp decline in business closures will also be reflected in a reduction in Connecticut's unemployment rate in the coming months."

According to Connecticut Department of Labor statistics, the unemployment rate in Fairfield this April was 7.0 percent, a shade higher than last April's 6.9 percent. Last July, the unemployment rate in this town peaked at 8.2 percent, and it was as high as 8.1 percent in January, according to the department's statistics.

The statewide unemployment rate this April was 9.0 percent, a sharp increase over last April's 8.0 percent unemployment rate, according to the department's statistics. Nationally, the unemployment rate has increased from 8.9 percent last April to 9.9 percent last month, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

For Fairfielders, though, things seem to be looking up.

"I think, as a general observation from what we're hearing, the worst seems to be behind us," said Mark Barnhart, the director of community and business development in town. "People are a little more optimistic about the future. We're not completely out of the woods yet. There are still issues in terms of financing and access to capital, but things are starting to pick up."

The vacancy rate of commercial spaces provides one indicator of the business scene's strength. Within the past few months, Barnhart said, the town's vacancy rate has been around 5 percent for retail space and 10 percent for office space. Across the county, he said, those numbers are slightly higher -- around 10 percent for retail space and 15 percent or higher for office space.

Patricia Ritchie, president and CEO of the Fairfield Chamber of Commerce, commented on the low vacancy rates. "If you drive down Black Rock Turnpike or the Post Road, you'll occasionally see an empty storefront, but it doesn't stay empty for long," she said. "There's always someone standing in line, waiting to get into Fairfield, because it's such a great place to do business or work."

Judging by the Secretary of State's report, so is Westport. By way of comparison, that town saw 20 percent fewer business closures during the opening quarter of this year, 48, than it did in early 2009, when there were 60 closures. Westport saw the exact same number of business openings during the opening quarters -- 116.

Over the past 12 months, the Westport-Weston Chamber of Commerce has reported an increase in membership from roughly 200 to 329 businesses. Forty-one members joined during the first quarter of this year alone, while no businesses left the chamber, said Lisa Thygerson, the Westport-Weston chamber's executive director.

So what's all this mean?

"I think it's a cautionary tale," Ritchie said. "People are feeling better about things, but they know in their heart of hearts they still have to step easy. I know many of my friends and the people I talk to are just tired of hearing bad news, having to hold back; they want to spend money. And I think their pocket books have definitely loosened. Plus it's spring and people feel good; winter's over at long last."