From the Chamber / Fairfield fortunate to have a highly educated and productive workforce
This past year, the Fairfield Economic Development Commission completed work on a long-range economic development strategy and plan. While the plan rightfully focuses on ways in which the town can work to support its existing business base and help Fairfield companies prosper and grow, it also examines actions the town can take to attract new business investment to expand its commercial Grand List.
Why the focus on the Grand List? Well, as any property owner well knows, Connecticut towns and cities rely almost exclusively on the collection of local property taxes to fund municipal services including public schools. In the case of Fairfield, property taxes account for more than 92 percent of total revenues in the current fiscal year. Absent some new, as-yet-unforeseen revenue source, that percentage is likely to go up in the face of ongoing state budget woes and municipal aid cuts.
To be sure, Fairfield is in a more advantageous position than most communities. Fairfield’s Grand List, or the value of all taxable property, is roughly $10.8 billion, which ranks it fifth-highest in the state, after Greenwich, Stamford, Norwalk and neighboring Westport. But, the commercial share of the Grand List in Fairfield is only 10 percent, compared to 24 percent in Stamford, 20 percent in Norwalk, 14 percent in Greenwich and 12 percent in Westport. Still, that figure is not too bad when one considers that less than 4.5 percent of the town’s land mass is zoned for commercial and industrial uses. Unfortunately, that share is likely to erode further, given the acquisition of the former GE campus by Sacred Heart University, which is tax-exempt.
So what to do to reverse this trend and increase the commercial share of the Grand List? Well, there are several approaches. One would be to look at increasing the acreage devoted to commercial uses. But as a fairly mature community, that would mean converting some properties that are zoned for other uses, like residential, to support new commercial development. While theoretically possible, that seems unlikely, save perhaps for a few rare instances. In fact, the recent trend has been exactly the opposite. Another approach would be to focus on the few remaining undeveloped or underdeveloped commercial properties, or by allowing greater density in areas of town where the infrastructure is in place to support it, particularly around transit nodes to incentivize new development.
Recently, the town secured a $200,000 state planning grant to evaluate opportunities for so-called transit-oriented development. Part of this effort will be to conduct a detailed market assessment, as well as a build-out analysis, intended to identify potential commercial sites and gauge their development potential based on existing land-use regulations. Both were action steps identified in the Economic Development Plan and are expected to help frame the town’s future business recruitment efforts. Additionally, the study will enable town officials and the public at large to take stock of emerging development patterns to determine whether a course correction is needed to reach the town’s overarching goals.
The Economic Development Plan also identified the need to update the economic development portion of the town’s website so it can be better deployed as a marketing tool to attract new companies. I am pleased to report this effort is already well underway, as is the development of a companion marketing plan to cultivate and engage business prospects. Of course, these plans will be for naught if we cannot help businesses swiftly navigate the local permitting process and give them assurance that their investment will be welcomed. To that end, the Economic Development Commission is also looking at best practices to ensure that our regulatory process is as straightforward, efficient and predictable as possible.
Fairfield is blessed in so many ways, but is incredibly fortunate to have a highly educated and productive workforce, along with a pipeline to young talent from our two local universities that should give companies the confidence that they can find the workers they need to prosper, grow and succeed. This wealth of talent, particularly in knowledge-based fields, is the key to securing Fairfield’s economic future.
Mark Barnhart is the director of Community and Economic Development for the town of Fairfield, and is the treasurer of the Connecticut Economic Development Association.