Category Archives: Economy

Arrivederci, Villarina’s

Villarina’s is closing very soon. The popular Compo Shopping Center seller of homemade pasta, sauces, prepared dinners, fresh bread, cheese, party trays and specialty items is the latest victim of rising rents.

“It’s been there about 18 years. Sales were strong, and margins fine,” says Joe Filc, owner of the Danbury-based company.

“But the rent doubled. And as I understand it, the landlord wants to consolidate the vacant space next door.” That’s the site of the former AAA office.

Villarina’s has been in Westport for nearly 20 years. There are 7 other stores in Connecticut, New York and Austin, Texas — like this one, all individually operated. Filc says that unlike Westport, most own their property.

Much of his business comes from private labels, Filc says. Products are also available at select restaurants and food stores.

(Photo and hat tip: Elizabeth Glaser)

(Photo and hat tip: Elizabeth Glaser)

Tough Times In A Town Of Plenty

There are nightmare scenarios no one wants to think about.

One struck a Westport man named Gary.

His wife died 7 years ago, of stomach cancer. Their 3rd child had just been born.

Gary

Gary

Gary raised them on his own, helping them move beyond their devastating loss. Proudly, he says, they are “growing as well-rounded, loving and respectful kids.”

A sales trader who deals in equities, he works on a commission-only basis. Over the past few months, business dried up.

The family lived in a very modest 2-bedroom apartment. He fell behind on his rent. Last Friday, his landlord evicted him.

Gary is 3 months behind on payments for his 2007 Jeep too. Repossession is imminent.

Two of his 3 children are living with relatives this summer. He’s spoken to Homes With Hope, but they have no housing for a single father and his family.

“I’ve done everything possible to stay positive, and provide for my children these last few years,” he says. “But I find my back up against a wall, and don’t see any other avenues to pursue.

“My credit rating suffered terribly after my wife passed, so a bank loan is not an option at present. I hope business will pick up shortly, and we will be okay.

“I am also a realist. I’m looking for new employment, but that is not an easy task these days.”

He posted those words on GoFundMe.com. It could not have been easy to ask for help like that. But he can’t think of what else to do.

GoFundMe logo

A friend asked me to tell Gary’s story on “06880.” I called Gary, to get his permission.

I warned him that cyberspace can be cruel. Some readers might make snarky remarks about a Westporter — even one who has been evicted from his home — asking for help.

He’s willing to take that chance.

And I’m betting that “06880” readers will understand that Gary’s story could be any of ours.

(To make a contribution to Gary’s GoFundMe page, click here.)

 

 

Budgets: 2. Drama: 0.

Something was missing this week, when the RTM considered Westport’s 2 budgets.

Rancor.

On Monday night, the legislative body unanimously approved $79 million in town spending for 2015-16. That’s a 2.51% increase over the current year. Included in the funding: $37,714 previously cut from the Transit District.

Last night, the vote was again unanimous: $111 million for the Board of Education. That’s a cut of $300,000 from what the Board of Finance approved in March; it’s up 1.8% from last year.

RTM members praised Jim Marpe’s administration, the superintendent of schools and  Board of Ed for the care and scrutiny with which they prepared their requests.

Westport sealBudget season in Westport used to be high drama. Proponents claimed that every dollar was sacrosanct to the future of Westport. Opponents shouted that massive cuts were needed to avoid fiscal ruin. Invective would spew. Referendums were threatened (or actually held). Things got ugly.

And the next year, the same thing happened all over again.

Budget season has been quiet for a while now. A couple of elements are at work.

Selectmen, the superintendent and Board of Ed have been prudent and honest in their requests. They’ve worked closely with the Board of Finance to understand what’s realistic — and the Board of Finance has worked hard to understand realistic requests.

All sides have tried to balance the all-important (and very elusive) concept of “quality of Westport life” with the economic realities of the 21st century.

Political posturing has been replaced with true bipartisanship.

Westport Public  SchoolsNo one in Westport threatens a government shutdown. No one wants to sequester funds. No one panders to a special set of constituents or supporters. That’s the way democracy works. Or it’s supposed to, anyway.

We haven’t heard a lot of names of local politicians lately. Many Westporters don’t even know who is chairman of the Board of Finance (John Pincavage) or Board of Ed (Michael Gordon). One is a Republican. The other’s a Democrat. Together, they and their boards govern effectively — and without egos.

The Board of Finance sets the official mill rate 2 weeks from today. A minimal increase is expected from the current 17.94.

New Taxes On Tap Via “County Government”?

Fairfield is a county in name only. Since 1960 — when the General Assembly abolished county governments — Connecticut’s 8 counties are about as useful as your appendix. The only reason they still exist, really, is to organize our judicial system.

Fairfield County is not the same as a proposed regional "Council of Government." But it would add another administrative layer to the state.

Fairfield County is not the same as a proposed regional “Council of Government.” But it would add another administrative layer to the state.

Except — according to State Representative Gail Lavielle — state legislators may introduce a new layer of taxing authority in the state. It may not officially be based on county governments (“regional Council of Governments” is the term) — but the effect would be the same.

Lavielle — who represents Westport, Wilton and Norwalk — says that if passed, SB 1 (“An Act Concerning Tax Fairness and Economic Development”) would establish a “regional property tax base revenue sharing system.”

She writes:

Each municipality would remit part of its local property taxes to its regional Council of Governments, which would in turn redistribute those funds among all of its member towns and cities, according to a formula that takes into account factors including each municipality’s population and property value.

Some towns would gain revenues; others would lose.

Lavielle says that in 2013 — when the General Assembly imposed the COG structure on all regional planning organizations — there was much discussion about its implications. The bill’s proponents assured Lavielle and others that COGs would not be responsible for property taxation issues on a regional basis, or any other level, she says.

But, she adds: “That assurance is not upheld in SB 1.”

(Hat tip: Bart Shuldman)

Alexander Chatfield (Lex) Burns: The Sequel

A post earlier today described the travails of Alexander Chatfield Burns — the high-flying New Yorker who, according to the Wall Street Journal, may be implicated in multi-million dollar problems at his former company, Southport Lane Management.

Alexander Chatfield Burns today... (Photo/WSJ.com)

Alexander Chatfield Burns today… (Photo/WSJ.com)

Burns did not go to Yale, as he claimed. He said he grew up in Westport, but no one here had heard of Alexander Chatfield Burns.

That’s because he went by the names “Lexy” (Coleytown Elementary and Middle Schools) and “Lex” (Staples).

He was in Staples’ Class of 2005, several classmates and parents confirm. However, his photo does not appear in the Staples yearbook — nor is he listed as a senior without a photo.

His photo is shown in the Class of 2004 yearbook, as a junior. That year — as commenter Jeff Mitchell notes — the Norwalk Hour listed him as a 2nd honors student.

...and Alexander (Lex) Burns as a junior, in the 2004 Staples High School yearbook.

…and Alexander (Lex) Burns as a junior, in the 2004 Staples High School yearbook.

One parent recalls him as being “brilliant — really ‘out there’ smart” at Coleytown Middle. She adds: “I think he may have won a huge award for coming up with some new idea having to do with fuel or gases or something. It was a big deal in the science world.”

She says that he went on found a New York film-making company that was very successful, “considering his young age and the short period of time he’d been working on it.”

Somewhere over the next few years, it seems, he turned his attention to Wall Street. The results are not good.

Another Westporter (Unfortunately) In The News

A dozen alert “06880” readers have emailed me links to the same Wall Street Journal story.

Titled “Young Financier’s Insurance Empire Collapses,” it begins:

Alexander Chatfield Burns cut a dashing figure in young New York financial circles.

Still in his mid-20s, he controlled a private-equity firm that owned several insurance companies. He called late-night meetings at a penthouse cigar club and donated the wine for a Guggenheim museum event from a vineyard he later bought.

Then one day about a year ago, Mr. Burns checked into a mental-health ward at New York’s Bellevue Hospital, leaving behind an affidavit describing an unusual series of asset transfers. Soon after, he resigned from his company, Southport Lane Management LLC.

Now, insurance investigators are sifting through the rubble. Delaware regulators say Southport under Mr. Burns siphoned off millions of dollars of mainstream insurance holdings, replacing them with assets that were “illiquid, grossly over-valued or hard to value, worthless, and in some cases non-existent,” as the state’s insurance commissioner put it in a filing in Delaware Chancery Court….

Alexander Chatfield Burns. (Photo/WSJ.com)

Alexander Chatfield Burns. (Photo/WSJ.com)

The story continues that Burns — now 28 years old — “amassed a business including two U.S. insurance companies, two offshore reinsurers, a brokerage firm and a web of dealings with other insurers that left him in charge of investing hundreds of millions of dollars in additional assets.”

Regulators seized control of the two main insurance companies last April. One in Delaware now is being liquidated, while one in Louisiana has been sold. Insurance-company losses total nearly $250 million, based on write-downs taken, while insurers still hold tens of millions of dollars in other questionable assets, according to insurance regulatory filings and court documents.

The “06880” hook is that, according to the story, Burns grew up in Westport as “a financial prodigy.”

When he was about 13, his mother told Robert N. Gordon, a friend and head of Twenty-First Securities Corp., that her son had determined that a famed options-pricing model “was wrong” and “he had a better idea,” Mr. Gordon recalls. The model, called Black-Scholes, had won its authors a Nobel Prize. Mr. Burns’s mother, a former Citigroup Inc. executive, declined to comment.

Very interesting. What’s even more interesting is that none of the people who emailed me the WSJ story has ever heard of “Alexander Chatfield Burns.”

The article adds that Burns “attended Yale and often wore Yale apparel, and he traced his Chatfield ancestry to the Mayflower, according to former associates.” However, Yale has no record that he went there.

And Twenty-First Securities — where Burns’ resume said he “began his career” — says he was never an employee. (He may have hung around the trading room as “when he was a kid.”)

Perhaps Alexander Chatfield Burns is making up his Westport pedigree too?

Fairfield County Aid, From Near & Far

Connecticut leads the nation in income inequality. The top 1 percent of our residents earn average incomes more than 48 times those of the bottom 99 percent. In Fairfield County, the figures are undoubtedly even more skewed.

Quietly — but very effectively — Near & Far Aid helps those on the lowest rungs.

NearFar_logoSince 2000, the unassumingly named, all-volunteer organization has donated more than $14 million to men, women and children living in poverty right in our midst.

Grants go to services providing emergency food, shelter and clothing; economy security programs like job training, financial literacy and affordable housing, and of course education.

The funds come from neighbors who contribute generously — very generously. But raising money is never easy. With tremendous competition from many worthy groups for donations, Near & Far Aid works hard to solicit funds.

They’re helped greatly by the generosity of the Mitchells. The  family — who offer up their store for nearly every charity that asks — holds a special place in their hearts for Near & Far Aid. For 20 years, they’ve hosted an amazing Spring Gala.

Sara BareillesThis year’s event is Friday, March 6. The highlight: an intimate concert with 5-time Grammy nominee Sara Bareilles. There are also live, silent and fine wine auctions; a spring fashion show, plus cocktails, hors d’oeuvres and supper.

As usual, Bob Mitchell — co-CEO of Mitchells and Richards — will be a “silent” event chair. He lends support, ideas and resources, but takes no credit.

“We truly cherish our 20-year partnership with Near & Far Aid,” Mitchell says. “Our family shares the same mission to give back to the less fortunate, particularly here in our community. We are so excited for this year’s 20th anniversary. We’re confident it will raise a record amount of funds, bringing relief, assistance and hope to those living in poverty.”

The “wealth gap” in this area is enormous. The consequences are real.

But the opportunity to help is priceless.

(For information on Spring Gala tickets, or to volunteer or make a donation, click here.)

The Mitchell family

The Mitchell family

 

Human Services’ Holiday Help

If you’re like me, you’re excited by the holiday season — and annoyed at the rampant commercialism that accompanies it.

But if you’re like dozens of Westport households here, you wonder how you can afford any gifts at all.

Holiday giftsOverlooked in all the ho-ho-ho-ing are local families for whom the holidays may not seem merry or bright. Job loss, medical expenses, foreclosure, divorce — those circumstances and others may add extra stress to this time of year.

Fortunately, riding shotgun with Santa is Westport’s Department of Human Services.

It’s a great, confidential way for Westporters to provide gifts for kids — and ease the financial burden on entire families. Last year, 432 residents — including those served by Homes With Hope, the Westport Housing Authority, Project Return and the schools’ Open Choice program — received holiday assistance.

One recipient — whose life changed drastically 4 years ago — cried after picking up gift cards.

A mom of limited means thanked DHS for easing the stress she felt on Christmas morning.

A longtime Westporter — who can afford to live here only because her apartment is owned by her family — says that without the program, her son would have only one present under the tree.

Another says simply, “the Holiday Gift Giving Program has made all the difference.”

Contributions come from individuals, as well as garden and book clubs, scout troops, schools, churches and businesses. Donors and receivers are assured of confidentiality.

For years, Audrey Hertzel has organized a huge effort at Sterling Investment Partners. She collects stuffed animals and books for the Holiday  Giving Program.

For years, Audrey Hertzel has organized a huge effort at Sterling Investment Partners. She collects stuffed animals and books for the Holiday Giving Program.

“Some of the most appreciated gifts are grocery and gas cards of any amount,” says Human Services director Barbara Butler. Also well received: gift cards to local stores.

Cash donations are always welcome. They allow Human Services staffers to buy last-minute gift cards for clients.

Cards and checks (made payable to “DHS Family Programs,” with “Holiday” on the memo line) can be mailed to Human Services, 110 Myrtle Ave., Westport, CT 06880 at any time (the sooner the better, of course). They can also be dropped off in Town Hall Room 200 during business hours.

If you’d like to shop for a family’s actual gift request — in full or part — or for questions, contact Patty Haberstroh (hsyouth@westportct.gov; 203-341-1069).

Families needing extra support during the holidays should call 203-341-1050.

 

Post Road Ghost Town

Ospreys are not all that have fled the Fresh Market shopping center.

4 of the 6 easternmost storefronts are vacat.

So is Patio.com, which recently decamped for new digs on the site of the old Brook Cafe, across the street from Starbucks.

Fresh Market shopping center

Is it a sign of a changing economy? Rents that climbed out of whack? Competition from other shopping centers, or other towns?

The good news: There’s plenty of parking.

Take 3 spaces. No one will care.

Westport At The Crossroads

Fred Cantor is an alert “06880” reader — and a talented researcher with an eye for intriguing stories about Westport’s past.

The other day, he sent 4 clippings from the New York Times. All were from 50 years ago. Westport was in the midst of a historic transformation, Fred said, as the town’s population rocketed skyward.

On February 2, 1964, 1st Selectman Herb Baldwin announced the formation of a Development Commission. The aim was to attract light industry, thus broadening the tax base.

“The move grew out of a recent fiscal seminar where concern was voiced over the town’s high bonded indebtedness, principally due to school construction,” the Times reported. The debt was approximately $12 million.

On June 26, the Planning and Zoning Commission tightened restrictions against new apartment buildings — despite acknowledging the need for apartments serving “older people and young married couples.” The previous day, the Zoning Board of Appeals denied an application for construction of a 48-unit apartment on the site of the Tennex factory on Riverside Avenue.

Many of today's familiar Riverside Avenue buildings were once factories.

Many of today’s familiar Riverside Avenue buildings were once factories.

On October 4, 1964, the Times said that a group of Greens Farms property owners were  “aroused by a proposal to build a department store, a supermarket and a parking lot for 617 cars in their midst, two miles east of the town’s center.” The centerpiece would be an Arnold Constable store.

Opponents cited a traffic hazard for students at nearby Green’s Farms Elementary School, and destruction of the “rustic charm” of the area. One person said, “We don’t want to turn Westport into another Rye or New Rochelle.”

Proponents countered it would add “sorely needed town revenue. They say the chief reason the town has sunk into debt over the last 20 years is that it has resisted business growth.”

The 7 1/2-acre property — bounded by South Morningside Drive and Church Street — would add between $40,000 and $52,430 a year in taxes.

Years after it was proposed, a shopping center was built near Greens Farms Elementary School.

Years after it was proposed, a shopping center was built near Greens Farms Elementary School.

Two months later, the P&Z proposed action to reverse the “hodgepodge” and “visual mayhem” — town officials’ words — of the Post Road. Fifteen properties along busy Route 1 would need special permits for development. New zones would be limited by “natural boundaries, such as topography, existing streets or similar barriers.”

Included was the Greens Farms tract. It took a number of years, but the shopping center — anchored today by Barnes & Noble — eventually was built.

Half a century later, some things haven’t changed. Westporters still debate property taxes and affordable housing.

But we no longer argue about shopping centers. They’re here, they’re there, they’re everywhere.

There’s nowhere left to put a new one.