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Based on his keynote comments at the Newtown Chamber of Commerce Annual Meeting January 9, recently elected First Selectman Dan Rosenthal is ready to begin delivering on campaign commitments he made to help encourage appropriate new commercial development in town, as well as launching or strengthening initiatives to better serve and enhance opportunities for existing local businesses large and small.
The first selectman covered more than a dozen different points and entertained a few questions from chamber members and leadership who gathered for the annual breakfast meeting at the Newtown Country Club.
Chamber President Brian Amey also recognized several “retiring” chamber members — and along with Business Development Director Helen Brickfield, touted the chamber’s newly redesigned website and social network platforms being used to promote activities and members; successful partnerships with the local library and municipal economic development office; as well as previewing a number of planned upcoming events intended to support continuing education and networking among members and local business professionals.
Mr Rosenthal opened his part of the program informing chamber members that he has asked the local Legislative Council to support an increase in capital spending for continued road maintenance and infrastructure improvements. He said during his fall campaign, the condition of Newtown’s roads were among the top two concerns being voiced by residents as well as business owners.
He also assured attendees that several proposed capital projects intended to produce revenue and/or serve specific users in town would be scrutinized for their return on investment above and beyond the cost of borrowing, and would have to be accompanied by a sound business plan in order to receive his support for authorization.
The first selectman explained that he requested capital funding he described as “tactical monies” be put in place to match possible grants the community would seek to acquire or preserve open recreational space. He said he was watching as daily work on the town’s new community center continues across from his office at Fairfield Hills, that he and the Board of Selectmen recently supported appointing a new community center oversight commission, and that staff and volunteers were narrowing a list of applicants to become the community center’s executive director.
Mr Rosenthal mentioned that he was interested in developing programming at the center that would not only attract local residents, but visitors from out of town who would help support the center in its goal to be a “revenue neutral” operation.
State Budget Fallout
Turning his attention to Hartford, the first selectmen told chamber members that the eventual outcome of the state budget situation resulted in Newtown receiving just under a half-million dollars less than anticipated, and that he was planning for a similar shortfall in state reimbursements as he and other officials completed developing the annual operating budget.
“It was not as big a disaster as anticipated,” Mr Rosenthal said of the municipal aid outcome. With that in mind, Mr Rosenthal said he was aiming at delivering a “same services budget” proposal that would include funding so the town and school district could combine funding to underwrite a purchasing agent position.
He said that individual would likely come from “the corporate world,” and would come into the job with an understanding that they would have two years to develop savings in excess of the cost for the purchasing professional’s salary and benefits, or officials might be inclined to eliminate the position. The first selectman said up to now, department heads were acting as purchasing representatives, and the acquisition of a person to take over that responsibility would also produce cost savings because it would free up those department heads to do other higher priority work.
Mr Rosenthal told chamber members that he was asking officials in the process of designing a new police headquarters to come up with three potential sites for the project, and to not limit themselves exclusively to parcels at Fairfield Hills. He said that an original site on or near the footprint of Cochran House on Mile Hill Road might not be financially feasible because the cost to remediate and demolish the building could add as much as $4 million to the project budget.
The first selectman reviewed a number of other infrastructure projects in process or poised to begin in 2018 including the Edmond Road and Pecks Lane realignments, the Toddy Hill Road bridge replacement, and preliminary work to reconfigure the flow of traffic using the I-84 Exit 11 on- and off- ramps.
Mr Rosenthal said he looked to borrow an idea that has successfully served states in the south, promising to initiate a business advisory council tapping members of the local business community to serve as liaisons between their peers and local government agencies.
“This council would serve as a conduit for feedback, particularly in regard to regulatory issues,” he said.
Q & A Opportunity
Local Realtor Kathy Hamilton said she was excited to hear about new things happening in town, but warned that the latest revaluation that would shift a higher tax burden on owners of smaller homes could drive residents to live elsewhere, noting that changes in assessed home values would correspond to lower resale values by as much as 10 to 25 percent.
The first selectman replied that typically, gains in the commercial grand list would help mitigate significant reassessments occurring after revaluation, but this year the net increase in the grand list was only about one percent.
“We’re seeing the strength in the [real estate] market is in that $200,000 to $400,000 range, and the shift [in revaluation] is going to the smaller homes,” Mr Rosenthal said. “At the same time, we’re not seeing a lot of grand list growth to take away the sting of revaluation.”
Adam Richichi, chief executive officer at Dental Associates, observed that the town was doing a good job at retaining existing businesses, but needed additional programs to spur innovation and recruitment of new and more progressive industry. He suggested exploring partnerships with a university. The first selectman responded that he was considering supporting a collaborative work space where startups and small businesses could share services, or where those transitioning out of home-based businesses could occupy as a next step of expansion plans.
Mike Neiman asked about further plans for development in the Hawleyville area. Mr Rosenthal replied that it would be his preference to see any remaining parcels be developed for commercial versus residential development.
“Too much housing can become an impediment to commercial economic development,” he said.
Following the first selectman’s talk, Ms Brickfield announced to members that the chamber would be developing an interactive online calendar that members could use to plan and announce promotional activities. She noted that 2017 saw 43 new members to the organization, including 19 women-owned businesses, and 17 that were virtual or home-based. Two of those members rejoined after being off the chamber roles for some time, and several new members who saw great value in Newtown’s offerings joined despite the fact that they were based in Danbury, Brookfield, and Bethel.
Ms Brickfield noted that the chamber hosted 18 ribbon-cutting events in 2017, and that 12 new businesses were scheduling events in the new year. As a result, the chamber has designated the third Friday of each month as a set day to conduct ribbon-cutting activities, and that accommodations for these events was even being made for home and virtual businesses interested in the self-promotion.
In addition, the chamber partnered with the C.H. Booth Library and Town Economic Development Commission to host more than 20 business education programs, workshops, and seminars last year, and that the organization would be kicking off Small Business Week on April 30 with a high-profile event featuring representatives from Facebook.
The chamber is now contracting with Newtown-based eFriend Marketing for its public relations and promotions work, after parting with Jantris Marketing, which served in that capacity for nearly ten years.