Category Archives: Economy

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 (; 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, 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.

We’re #12! But We Are Definitely Not Little Rock.

Westport — well, “Fairfield County, Conn.” (okay, actually the Bridgeport-Fairfield-Norwalk corridor) — is #12 on Forbes’ list of “America’s Best Cities for Young Professionals.”

Forbes cited these statistics:

Population: 939,904
Median Salary: $63,600
Unemployment rate: 6.2%
Population with bachelor’s degree: 44.6%
Cost of living index: 136.9
Avg. Yearly Job Growth (2014-2016): 2.0%
Companies with 500+ employees: 1 for every 910 people
Companies with <500 employees: 1 for every 42.36 people

All well and good. Except for the photo that illustrates “Fairfield County”:

Little Rock

That is not Norwalk. It’s not Stamford. And it’s definitely not Bridgeport.

It’s Little Rock, Arkansas.

PS: The odds you’ll get the top 3 are infinitesimal. They are, in order:

  1. Des Moines
  2. Raleigh
  3. Omaha
(Hat tip to Peter Propp) 

Talking Big Bucks And Milwaukee Bucks With Marc Lasry

There’s no such thing as a free lunch.

But this Sunday at the Westport Library, you can hear — for free — a wide-ranging talk by probably the wealthiest man in a town filled with money.

Marc Lasry. (Photo/Avenue Capital Group)

Marc Lasry. (Photo/Avenue Capital Group)

On August 3 (2 p.m., McManus Room), hedge fund titan Marc Lasry — whose $1.7 billion fortune lands him at #1047 on Forbes’ list of the world’s billionaires — talks about the US and global economy, and the current investment climate.

Lasry — CEO and co-founder of Avenue Capital Group —  will address why good investments are getting harder to find, regions and industries where his firm is finding them, and how they find them.

And — because there is more to life than hedge funds — Lasry will also discuss his recent purchase of the Milwaukee Bucks NBA team, and his hiring of Jason Kidd as coach. Plus Lasry’s interest in politics, philanthropy and comic books.

This being Westport, Lasry will be introduced by fellow resident Arthur Levitt. He’s only the former chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission.

New “Refinery” Targets Women Business Leaders

This area is blessed with many things: Natural beauty. Educational and cultural opportunities. And an abundance of brilliant women.

Fairfield County teems with high achievers. After starting families, they’re ready to go back to work. But rather than return to the corporate world, they’re starting their own businesses.

Westporter Janis Collins — entrepreneur-in-residence for the Stamford Innovation Center and B:HIve in Bridgeport — has met with over 200 Connecticut startups in the past year. A quarter were led by women.

Refinery logoBut every business needs a boost. The Refinery is an exciting new project that leverages extensive local intellectual and financial capital to help women-led businesses grow. (The definition: at least 1 woman in a leadership role.)

It’s an underserved market, Collins says. They get less than 10% of all venture capital money — despite studies showing that these companies perform at par or greater than those with male CEOs.

Over 25 mentors — female and male — have already signed up. The core team includes Jen Gabler, North Shutshiwaran and Bill Gordon. All 3 live in Westport or Weston.

Local talent like Andy Moss, Steve Obsitnik, Galia Gichon and Jenny Lawton are ready to advise and assist too.

The Westport Library, Westport Sunrise Rotary and Stamford Innovation Center provide grant money to the top performing company in the program.

Janis Collins (left) and Jen Gabler work with Daniel Ruskin, who is helping with The Refinery's tech side.

Janis Collins (left) and Jen Gabler work with Daniel Ruskin, who is helping with The Refinery’s tech side.

The Library has integrated The Refinery into its Maker-in-Residence program. So — along with meeting rooms — the innovative Maker Space is available to Refinery members.

The Refinery says it is different from other accelerators because it is highly individualized; it serves pre-revenue companies, as well as those that have launched or need a re-boot; it matches mentors with industry-specific experience, and its location accesses New York and Boston networks.

Through June 15, the organization is accepting applications for a 12-week fall program. Applicants should have launched — or be ready to launch — a product or digital service by the end of 2014. Companies should have the potential to grow to more than $10 million in revenues within 4 to 6 years. To apply for the fall program, click on The Refinery website.

The accelerator culminates in a Pitch Night. Teams will present their companies to the community, pitch to potential investors, and compete for cash awards.

“This is a community effort to create local jobs, and investible companies,” Collins says.

And Fairfield County’s remarkable women lead the way.

In Fairfield County, Billionaires Lurk Around Every Corner. Except Ours.

Proof — if anyone needs it — that Fairfield County is not like the rest of the world came earlier this week, when Forbes magazine released its list of the world’s wealthiest men (and a few women).

There are 1,645 billionaires on the planet — and 14 live in Fairfield County.

In other words: 1 out of every 100 billionaires — billionaires! — on the planet owns at least one home within an easy bike ride of us.

What may be almost as surprising, though, is that not one of them calls Westport home.

Westport's Glendinning complex is no longer the right fit for Bridgewater Associates.

Westport’s Glendinning complex is no longer the right fit for Bridgewater Associates.

The richest state billionaire is Ray Dalio. He’s worth a cool $14.4 billion — placing him #69 overall — thanks to the hedge fund he founded, Bridgewater Associates.

There is, of course, a Westport connection: Bridgewater is based here.

Though Dalio is trying to move it to Stamford, closer to his Greenwich home. Of course, to do that he needs tax breaks from the state.

The other 9 Greenwichites on the list include hedge fund titan/federal microscope subject Steve Cohen, and wrestling kingpin Vince McMahon.

Virtually everyone else on the list is a finance-type guy. And they are all guys: the only female Connecticut billionaire is also the lone non-Fairfield County resident, Branford hotel queen Karen Pritzker.

I draw 2 conclusions from the Forbes rankings.

  1. With all that financial power concentrated in this county, you’d think they could get Metro-North to improve its service. Except that I doubt they take the train to work.
  2. Fairfield County is filled with caviar. But when it comes to billionaires, Westport is chopped liver.

10,000 bill


We’re #9! Completely Arbitrarily!

You may have missed this recent news, but “06880” did not:

Westport ranks #9 on a list of “America’s Top 15 Economic Power Towns.

That’s right. Our humble burg trails only #1 McLean, Virginia, Weston (Massachusetts, not Connecticut — whew!) and 6 other places as — well, something.

SpareFoot logoTo compile the list, SpareFoot — – an Austin, Texas-based company that boasts “the largest inventory of storage units in the U.S.” — examined every place in America with 50,000 residents or fewer, that also happens to be home to at least one Fortune 500 company. More than 120 towns fit into that category, meaning nearly 10% of all candidates had a chance of making the list.

(Can you guess Westport’s Fortune 500 company? I couldn’t.)

SpareFoot then applied 6 criteria to rank the “economic power” of Fortune 500 towns:

  • Home ownership rate (Westport’s: 86.2%)
  • Median household income ($152,586)
  • Local unemployment rate (7.4%)
  • Percentage of residents living in poverty (3.7%)
  • Ratio of median home value to median income (7.2)
  • Median value of owner-occupied homes ($1.1 million)

So, to summarize: A random self-storage business decided to create an “economic power” index; chose arbitrarily to limit it to places with Fortune 500 headquarters, but also arbitrarily with a certain limited population; came up with 6 totally random categories, having absolutely nothing to do with the original arbitrary premise of Fortune 500 companies, and then tried to convince “06880” to run the story.

Hey. It worked.

So what Fortune 500 company is headquartered in Westport? Terex.

This was the photo SpareFoot used to illustrate Westport's #9 appearance on its "Economic Power Towns" list.

This was the photo SpareFoot used to illustrate Westport’s #9 appearance on its “Economic Power Towns” list.

Dwain Schenck: “Reset” Yourself After A Job Loss

In 2012, Dwain Schenck lost his job as vice president of public relations for a major US company. Nearing 50, it was his first layoff ever. But he was not worried.

Schenck figured that with his background — a journalism degree from USC, decades of experience with non-profits and big corporations, and a proven record of success — he’d land a new gig pretty quickly.

It didn’t happen.

“The world had changed radically” since he entered the workforce, the 10-year Westport resident says.

“The Great Recession was over, but the job market was still horrendous. There were no jobs for a VP of corporate communications.”

Especially one who was — in his words — “middle-aged, balding, a little heavy.”

Dwain Schenck

Dwain Schenck

Schenck went on plenty of interviews. They went well, but nothing panned out. No one told him why he was not hired.

His kids — 2 at Staples, 1 at Coleytown Middle School — were thriving. But Schenck’s self-confidence quickly crumbled. He realized he had “connected all of my self-worth to my job. Nothing equipped me to be out of work, and with no control over my destiny.”

One night, at dinner with longtime friend Mika Brzezinski — they’d grown up professionally together at AmeriCares, and her husband and Schenck were briefly fellow reporters at News12 — he told her of his tough experiences.

As she realized the toll it was taking — on Schenck’s personality, marriage and home life — she said, “you have to write about it.”

Finally, he had something he could control.

Schenck interviewed job-seekers, business executives, psychologists, and celebrities like Donald Trump and Larry David.

The result — Reset: How to Beat the Job-Loss Blues and Get Ready for Your Next Act – is a hit. It’s the 6th best-selling business paperback — and a lifesaver for readers, as well as Schenck himself.

Reset bookDespite the topic, it’s hardly gloom-and-doom. Schenck writes with humor, insight and plenty of personal experience on topics like insecurity, networking, maintaining a social life, and “Welcome to Hell: HR and Interviewing.”

It’s heavy on reinvention. Which is fitting, because Schenck reinvented himself by the very act of writing a book.

He’d never considered it before. But, thanks to a job coach who helped him look at his “constellation of skills,” rather than just one skill set, he realized he was more than just a public relations executive.

By the time Schenck finished writing, he had the confidence to relaunch himself as  PR consultant to high-end clients. He got good gigs, helping CEOs with their messaging and external communications.

Schenck has a website that brings in work, and does motivational speaking too.

He no longer commutes to New York. He works from home and onsite, at clients’ Fairfield County headquarters.

He wouldn’t be where he is, he says, without Westport. It’s an “artistic, comfortable, tolerant town with a lot of heritage,” he says, and his family loves being here. He moved here for the schools, and if he’d gotten a job in Silicon Valley — as he almost did — he would have commuted cross-country.

At 50 years old, he is “doing what I want, and like, to do,” Schenck says. “I’m probably using 75% of my skills, for the first time ever.”

He’s making more money than before he was fired.

But he’s less focused on that. He’s “reset” his life. As his subtitle says, Schenck definitely beat the job-loss blues. Now, he’s well into his next act.

(Dwain Schenck will be at the Westport Barnes & Noble at 2 p.m. on Saturday, February 22 to sign copies of Reset. Mika Brzezkinski will be there too.)