Mayoral candidates tout marketing plans at debate before Greater Norwalk Chamber of Commerce

NORWALK — The city’s four mayoral candidates outlined their plans to keep and attract new businesses to the city during a debate before the Greater Norwalk Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday morning.

About 100 people attended the debate, which was sponsored by Patriot Bank and held at the Norwalk Inn & Conference Center on East Avenue. Tom Appleby, retired News 12 Connecticut news director, moderated the event.

The candidates shared their priorities and answered questions on, among other topics, the Walk Bridge replacement, education, mass transit, zoning regulations and attracting new businesses to Norwalk.

Mayor Harry Rilling, a Democrat seeking a third term, cited his administration’s hiring of an economic development director, implementation of an economic development plan, co-sponsorship of small business seminars, and a planned trip to New York City as evidence of his commitment to helping Norwalk.

“I’m going into New York City tomorrow (Thursday) to attract people, to let them know that Norwalk is a wonderful place, not only to live and do business, but to have recreation, to visit,” said Rilling, Norwalk’s former police chief. “We want to make sure that they get the true picture of what Norwalk has to offer.”

On Thursday, Rilling, Stamford Mayor David Martin, the first selectmen of Greenwich, Westport and Fairfield, their respective economic development directors, and Connecticut Economic and Community Development Commissioner Catherine Smith will host a luncheon in New York City aimed at convincing businesses to relocate to lower Fairfield County.

Lisa Brinton, an independent who’s running as a petitioning candidate in Norwalk’s 2017 mayoral race, touted her earlier work in the corporate world — two decades with AT&T in the United States and abroad — as evidence of her understanding of the business community.

“The first way to send a strong message to the business community is to elect a mayor that has business experience,” said Brinton, a Rowaytonite who has pushed for reforms in city government. “It’s great that the mayor is going in to market Norwalk, but Connecticut right now is kind of in a bad way. I think we rank 50 out of 50. We have an ‘F’ in terms of our friendliness in doing business. That boils down to Norwalk as well.”

She cited vacant office space in the Wall Street area — “many of you have lived here your whole lives and realize it hasn’t changed since the flood of ’55” — as an example of missed opportunities.

State Rep. Bruce Morris, a South Norwalk Democrat who also is running as a petitioning candidate, lent his support to marketing the city but found a current marketing slogan overused and incomplete.

“I keep hearing that Norwalk is ‘on the move,’ but frankly, the previous mayor said the same thing,” said Morris, former human relations officer for Norwalk Public Schools. “Norwalk is on the move, but the question is move to where? What’s the destination? To be able to market something you need to market not just that there’s activity going on but what is the ultimate goal?”

Morris said the city’s new Plan of Conservation and Development must lay out a vision for Norwalk and be backed by a strategic plan, as used by businesses, “that we can monitor and make sure this is a goal, here’s how we’re going to get there.”

Rilling said his administration had engaged 35 residents in the city’s upcoming revisions of its Plan of Conservation and Development.

Republican mayoral candidate Andrew Conroy, a former District E councilman who traced his engagement in local government to getting schools repaired, said Norwalk’s mayor must be a “cheerleader” for the city.

“If you want to compete, if you want to be a great football team, if you want to have great schools, if you want to succeed in business, you can’t let the effort fall off,” Conroy said. “You have to increase it, you have to measure it and you have to make sure that what you’re doing is effective.”

Marketing Norwalk to potential new businesses is one thing. Getting them through the permitting process at City Hall is another, according to Conroy, who like Brinton advocated for streamlining the process.

“I already talked about the departments and making sure that we’re customer-friendly, basically, and that we change some of the processes so that we decrease the cycle time on permits,” Conroy said. “And I know that can be done.”