Earlier this year the Fairfield Economic Development Commission (EDC) completed work on an economic development strategy and long-range plan.

Created with the assistance of the Connecticut Economic Resource Center, a nonprofit think tank based in Rocky Hill, the plan examined the town’s efforts to attract and retain companies and to foster new business development with an eye toward improvement and implementing industry best practices. Though planned for some time, the study’s timing was propitious, coming on the heels of GE’s decision to decamp to Boston, which formed a backdrop for many of our initial conversations with key stakeholders and business leaders. So what did the Commission find? Well, the good news is that the majority of business participants in the year-long study were complimentary of Fairfield as a business location, the town’s overall business climate, the accessibility and responsiveness of local government and the services provided by town departments. Clearly, businesses see value in what Fairfield has to offer.

Nevertheless, the study also identified areas of concern and those in need of improvement. Perhaps not surprisingly, respondents cited property taxes and business costs generally as well as traffic and congestion as principal concerns. Many also expressed frustration with the town’s land use regulations and processes that were perceived to limit growth opportunities. And, a majority thought the town could do more to attract new businesses, perhaps by offering incentives such as tax abatements.

Using the feedback gleaned from workshops, one-on-one interviews, focus group sessions and a survey instrument, CERC worked with the Commission to formulate a plan that focuses on: (1) identifying opportunities to streamline and improve the town’s regulatory process for greater efficiency and ease of use; (2) exploring the town’s business mix to target industries that would be best suited to Fairfield and prioritizing sites for redevelopment; 3) supporting mixed use development opportunities, particularly around transit nodes; (4) continuing to build relationships with anchor institutions such as Fairfield and Sacred Heart Universities to leverage these assets to help grow the local economy; (5) supporting our nascent hospitality and tourism industry by developing a marketing campaign and expanding lodging options; and (6) enhancing the town’s marketing efforts and brand presence.

Since its publication, the EDC has spent the last few months reviewing the policy recommendations and refining and prioritizing specific action steps called for in the plan. In doing so, the EDC remains focused on policies that will help grow the commercial grand list that capitalize on the town’s existing strengths, but not compromise its strong sense of community character and enviable quality of life. Without a doubt, it is a delicate balancing act.

The Commission understands that in order to achieve its objectives, it will need to work closely with, and enlist the help of others, including other town boards and commissions as well as the Fairfield Chamber of Commerce and the broader business community. But, with continued pressure to maintain essential services without raising taxes in the face of State fiscal uncertainty and budget cutbacks, the stakes have never been higher.

Mark Barnhart is the Director of Community & Economic Development for the town of Fairfield, and is the Treasurer of the Connecticut Economic Development Association (CEDAS).