Category Archives: Economy

Westporters Lead Norwalk Hospital Board

When Amy Schafrann recruited Mark Gudis for the Norwalk Hospital board of directors, it seemed like a good fit.

The senior investment professional had spent much of his career examining healthcare companies. His wife MaryGrace was already on the hospital’s foundation board.

He found the work fascinating. “The landscape is changing so rapidly,” he says. “But people will always get sick. Working on the board is all about seeing what we can do to make things better for everyone.”

Then Gudis himself got sick.

A health scare in early 2013 caused him to reflect on what was most important in his life.

Mark Gudis

“It was humbling and scary,” he says. “But it made me a better person. I’m more focused now on doing things that benefit others.”

Which is why Gudis has just been named chairman of the Norwalk Hospital Association board of directors. And Schafrann — who recruited him years ago — is the new vice chair. Both are longtime Westporters.

Gudis has 4 goals for the hospital. He wants to engage all 1,400 employees, making sure they’re growing in their jobs and satisfied with their work; ensure that the hospital’s 425 physicians get whatever they need to serve patients; continue to enhance and innovate the hospital’s work in the community, and make continuous improvement in safety and security.

For 125 years, Norwalk Hospital has been a part of the local community. But it’s also moved forward, extending its reach and resources.

In October, the hospital partnered with Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. That means accelerated access to the latest treatments — and Sloan Kettering’s renowned physicians — right here at home.

The hospital is also allied with Connecticut Children’s Medical Center — which means improved inpatient medical care for kids.

And Norwalk Hospital is collaborating with Northwell Health, the large New York provider, to share best practices and provide better buying power.

“So a community hospital can have all the resources of a large metropolitan hospital,” Gudis explains.

Last year, Norwalk Hospital did 10,000 surgeries, and treated 50,000 emergency room patients.

“We’ve done a good job,” Gudis notes. “The Norwalk Hospital of 10 years ago is not the Norwalk Hospital of today — or tomorrow. It’s very exciting.”

He looks forward to working with Schafrann. The 1972 graduate of Staples High School — who spent 20 years as a Yankelovich managing partner, and now runs a college consulting firm — says that for many years she took the hospital for granted.

Twenty-eight years ago, she went into labor at 26 weeks. Her daughter Sara was born — weighing just 1.5 pounds.

“It was a very scary time,” Schafrann says. She and her husband Richard grew to appreciate the neonatal intensive care unit.

After 3 months of “incredible care,” Sara went home. She weighed 5 pounds.

Her story ends happily. A few months ago, several doctors and nurses attended Sara’s wedding. She earns her doctorate in clinical and social psychology this May, and will work with children with learning disabilities and special needs.

Amy Schafrann

“We wanted to give back to the hospital that gave us our wonderful daughter,” Schafrann says. At first, she and her husband made financial donations to the unit.

Several years ago, she was asked to join the Foundation board. Now she’s vice chair of the full board.

Schafrann is proud of the Circle of Caring/Grateful Patients program she founded. It encourages notes of appreciation to doctors, nurses, aides, meal deliverers, technicians — anyone who made a paitent’s stay easier or better.

While co-chair of the Whittingham Cancer Center Walk/Run — with fellow Westporter Tammy Zelkowitz — Schafrann recruited local students to form teams. She’ll continue to search for ways to keep teenagers involved in the hospital.

Her goal on the board is “to help deliver high-quality care. With all the financial pressures, many local hospitals have disappeared. Through our network, with economies of scale and thanks to our donors, we’ll continue to provide advanced emergency care, state-of-the-art cancer treatment, and community health and wellness.”

New Name For Westport Country Playhouse

The Westport Country Playhouse — which already includes the Lucille Lortel White Barn Center, and the Sheffer studio space — is adding another name to its property.

In fact, the entire campus will now be called The Howard J. Aibel Theater Center at Westport Country Playhouse.

The change recognizes a $3 million gift from the local resident, and current vice chair of the board of trustees.

Howard Aibel

“I have found live theater to be life transformative,” Aibel — a retired attorney, who formerly served as chief legal officer of ITT Corporation — says.

“Being a supporter of the Westport Country Playhouse has been a rich and grand experience.”

Playhouse artistic director Mark Lamos says, “This is not only financial sustenance. It is spiritual sustainability. His belief now enables us to create the highest level of work.”

Of Aibel’s grant, $500,000 is designated for current operations, and $500,000 for working capital reserve. A bequest of $2 million to establish an endowment is held in an irrevocable trust.

Aibel retired as a partner of Dewey & LeBoeuf, where he focused on international dispute resolution. He served as president of the Harvard Law School Association of New York, and chair of the American Arbitration Association. He is also chair emeritus of the Alliance of Resident Theatres/NY.

I’m not sure how many people will actually refer to the Playhouse as the Howard Aibel Theatre Center.

But there will be a nice sign on the 87-year-old iconic red building to remind everyone that while the arts are important to Westport’s heritage, they need the financial support of people like Aibel, who have the means — and desire — to help keep them alive.

Artist’s rendering of the new sign above the Westport Country Playhouse entrance.

Celebrating 75 Years Of Staples Tuition Grants

In 1943, the Staples High School PTA gave $100 to a group of Westporters. They in turn found a worthy recipient, who would otherwise be unable to attend college.

With that donation, Staples Tuition Grants was born.

In 2017 — nearly 75 years later — the organization provided $300,000 in assistance to over 100 recipients. They were graduating seniors, and college students who had received previous grants. They’re attending public and private universities, junior colleges and vocational schools.

They supplement their grants with jobs. They work hard. They’re grateful that college — exponentially more expensive than ever — can be a reality.

Some of the awardees at the 2015 Staples Tuition Grants ceremony.

STG is rightfully proud that for three-quarters of a century, they’ve provided millions of dollars to tens of thousands of students.

So they’re throwing a party. The theme — naturally — is “75 years of college.”

Set for Saturday, March 10 (7 p.m., Branson Hall at Christ & Holy Trinity Church), the casual, fun event features college-ish food (pizza, burgers), drink (keg beer, wine) and music from (most) attendees’ college years. There could be ping pong and foosball too.

Party-goers are encouraged to wear their school colors or logowear. A 1955 recipient has already RSVP-ed. Organizers hope other former recipients will attend too.

The cost is $75. (It’s a fundraiser, obviously.) Organizers are soliciting 75 business sponsors, at $100 each (in honor of that first-ever grant).

Gault Energy and Melissa & Doug have signed on as lead sponsors.

Igor Pikayzen — a 2005 Staples grad, and STG recipient — will play. Westport filmmaker Doug Tirola — whose father was on the STG board — is making a special video. Former STG recipients Ned Batlin and Trevor Lally will give brief remarks. So will Miggs Burroughs, who designed the logo.

Everyone — Staples grads, and those of every other high school; college alumni and people who never went; anyone who ever got a scholarship, and anyone who did not — is invited to the 75th anniversary celebration.

Let’s make sure that Staples Tuition Grants is still doing great deeds in 2093 — 75 years from now.

(Click here for tickets to the 75th anniversary celebration, and more information. If you’re a former recipient and would like to be taped for a video, or are interested in helping sponsor the event, email poley@optonline.net.)

Screw Connecticut! Stay In Florida!

You know all those Florida license plates you see around Westport?

Most of them belong to Westporters with 2nd homes. It’s a good life. But it does come with perils.

Like making sure you don’t spend so much time here, you’d have to pay state income taxes.

As with everything these days, there’s an app for that.

For just $19.99 a year, TaxBird can save you thousands. It tracks your location, showing how many days you’ve spent in each state — and how many days you have left.

You’re automatically notified when you approach a state residency threshold.

That’s an interesting story for those of us — I mean, of you — with 2nd homes.

But there’s an even stronger “06880” connection: Co-founder Jim Simon lives in Westport.

Some of the time.

He became a Florida resident to avoid Connecticut taxes, he tells the Greenwich blog For What It’s Worth.

So the next time you see people in Westport with Florida plates, tell them about TaxBird.

On second thought, don’t.

We need their taxes.

(Hat tip: Iain Bruce)

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Social Venture Partners Tackle Inequality Gaps

If you’re looking for one end of the economic inequality scale, you’ll find it right in Westport. The opportunities available here are vast — and astonishingly greater than those found just a few miles away, in places like Bridgeport.

But if you’re looking for organizations that address that gulf, you’ll also find them in Westport.

One that flies far below the radar — but has an outsized, and growing impact — is Social Venture Partners Connecticut.

Based at the Innovation Hub in Saugatuck, the state chapter is one of 43 such groups in the US and abroad. First formed in Seattle by Microsoft executives, Social Venture Partners harnesses the talents of volunteers — community leaders, philanthropists and entrepreneurs — to bridge yawning opportunity gulfs.

And if there are 3 things Westport has plenty of, it’s community leaders, philanthropists and entrepreneurs.

Of Social Venture Partners Connecticut’s 72 “partners” — their term for volunteers — 1/3 are from Westport. They contribute money to a grant-making pool. Funds are then awarded to innovative local groups that address 2 key elements of the inequality gap: education and workforce development.

But SVP’s partners do much more than give money. They also donate time, energy and expertise.

And if there are 3 things Westporters have, it’s time, energy and expertise.

Well, maybe not time. Still, they manage to find it.

Mark Argosh

Mark Argosh is executive director of SVP Connecticut. He’s got more than 30 years experience as a senior advisor, investor and partner to Fortune 500, mid-size companies and non-profits. His passion for community entrepreneurship was honed at Brown University, where he majored in social change; his business chops were sharpened at Stanford, where he got his MBA.

Argosh cites 3 recent projects as emblematic of Social Venture Partners’ power and reach. They piloted a program at NCC aimed at improving the entire community college system in Connecticut. They’re partnering with Housatonic Community College to build a center that will train 1,000 people a year for advanced manufacturing jobs. And they’re working in Stamford to help immigrants integrate into community — and find jobs.

An SVP investment committee evaluates a number of non-profits. The group picks 3 to 5, then donates $25,000 a year to each, for 3 years.

Grants have been made to groups like the Carver Foundation in Norwalk, and programs like Horizons National, a summer enrichment program for disadvantaged youths (coincidentally, is headquartered in Westport).

In addition, SVP volunteers work with those organizations, offering innovative business principles to maximize the impact of the monetary donations.

Argosh calls his 72 partners “an amazing collection of people who want to move the needle on inequality. It’s a lot easier to do it together than alone.”

Social Venture Partners is “very un-hierarchical,” he explains. “Anyone can get involved however they want. People take on responsibility very quickly.”

Argosh says that SVP volunteers “get a real sense of meaning. People in this area work very hard. They try to be involved, but they can feel disconnected from the community — their home town, and especially a community next door in need. This is true involvement.”

After working with companies all over the world, Argosh says “this is the best job I’ve ever had. It’s the most fulfilling too. Every single thing we do helps individuals and non-profits directly.”

He welcomes new SVP partners. To learn more about the Connecticut chapter, click here. For the national organization, watch the video below.

Ann Taylor And Allen Edmonds Leaving Main Street. Tumbleweeds Next?

Yesterday, Nike handed over the keys to their Main Street store landlord.

This summer, Ann Taylor and Allen Edmonds follow.

That will leave 3 empty stores out of 4 in a row — smack in the middle of downtown.

Skip Lane — retail director for Cushman & Wakefield, the leasing brokers — minces no words.

“It’s a scary time for retail,” the Westport native and Staples High School graduate says. “Nobody knows where this will end.”

Nike has vacated 5,600 square feet of space. Ann Taylor leases 4,000 square feet; Allen Edmonds, 2,000.

The Nike store on Main Street is now closed.

That will be dwarfed when the GGP Mall opens off I-95 Exit 15 in Norwalk. It’s huge — and, Lane says, the only enclosed mall under construction in the entire country.

“It can kill street retail,” he predicts. “Rents will be lower, and foot traffic will be higher.”

Rents for stores like Nike are now in the $130 per square foot range, Lane says. Recent deals, he notes, are around $80 to $90.

Right now, there are 20 or so vacancies in downtown Westport. Lane worries the number will climb.

“I’m a cheerleader for the town,” he says. “But a few more hits, and it will be tumbleweeds down there.”

He offers a partial solution: “Stop using Amazon. Support your retailers. Shop local!”

In 1962 — and long after — Main Street was a vibrant shopping destination. Many stores were locally owned.

Peter Dickstein’s Solful Startup

Ever since moving to the Bay Area nearly 35 years ago, Peter Dickstein has been immersed in that torrid startup scene.

The 1973 Staples High School graduate — and former University of Pennsylvania soccer captain — founded and operated a variety of companies. For the last 10 years he’s advised CEOs and boards on corporate and financial strategy.

Peter Dickstein

“I enjoy the process of building businesses, and doing deep dives. And I love helping younger entrepreneurs,” Dickstein says.

Now he’s building a new business. He’s doing it with a young co-founder. And he’s helping shape one of the fastest-growing industries around: legal cannabis.

In 2015, when Eli Melrod — son of longtime friends — took a pause from Wesleyan University, he sought Dickstein’s entrepreneurial experience. With California headed toward legalizing marijuana for recreational use, they looked at multiple opportunities: intellectual property acquisition and licensing, testing lab, cultivation, you name it.

The most compelling prospect, they believed, was creating a branded destination dispensary, focused on a great customer experience grounded in cannabis education. They would use healthful, locally grown products, sold in a warm, welcoming environment.

On January 1, Solful became one of 88 dispensaries across all of California licensed to sell to adults 21 and over. It’s in Sebastapol, nestled in Sonoma County.

Dickstein (the first person interviewed in the video clip above) is executive chairman. Melrod — who his mentor calls “diligent, thoughtful, curious and hard-working” — is CEO. With a team of marketing and retail experts, they’re building a brand and experience they hope to roll out in multiple locations.

“We didn’t want to be a head shop,” Dickstein emphasizes. “We want to be an important part of the communities we serve. We cater to mainstream consumers who want to improve their physical and mental health.”

That’s not, he says, what most dispensaries in California are like. Many are small “mom and pop” shops.

Opening a dispensary in California is not easy. Numerous state and local regulations demand diligent record-keeping and compliance. In the absence of normal business banking options, there are tough financial management challenges.

Obtaining a local permit is arduous too. Proposition 64 allows each jurisdiction to make its own rules. Marin County, for example, rejected a dozen or so applications, for reasons ranging from proposed locations to the backgrounds of applicants.

Publicly traded companies– including big drug, food and tobacco enterprises — are prohibited from investing in and selling cannabis. So most investors so far have been private entities and individuals, Dickstein says.

“We’re bringing a professional business approach, applying best business practices to what has, until now, been a black market, under-the-radar industry,” Dickstein says.

Solful is designed to bring light to the formerly underground sale of cannabis. The store is open, bright and natural-looking. It’s a happy, upbeat place, with a well-trained, friendly staff.

A few members of Solful’s large, well-trained and happy staff.

Products are well-organized, and clearly displayed. Thoughtful signage helps customers understand each product, along with how to ingest and the body’s reaction to it.

A 30-page “Solful Field Guide” (hard copy and online) provides even more information.

Staff members ask questions: “What are you trying to achieve with cannabis? Do you have any ailments? Have you used cannabis before? If so, did you smoke? Vape? Use edibles, topicals or tinctures? Most importantly, how did it affect you?”

There’s no hard sell. As with a store like Patagonia — one of the founders’ inspirational brands — the emphasis is on education and information. Farmers, health professionals and manufacturers are invited in, to give and see live demonstrations.

The shelves in Solful’s Sebastapol store.

The dispensary opened in early October, when only medicinal marijuana was legal in California. Almost immediately, wildfires devastated the region.

Solful’s staff headed into the community, helping residents and volunteering with the Red Cross. They fundraised for victims.

The store partnered with a major edible and vape pen manufacturer to supply medicine and devices to medically dependent people, becoming one of Sonoma’s 4 free distribution centers.

Since January 1, sales have been robust. Twenty-five percent are to people 60 and over.

Some customers seek relief from cancer and its treatment, epilepsy, glaucoma and depression. One uses cannabis to ease back pain; he’s now opioid free.

Some simply seek to relax, or alter their mood.

Solful offers a wide range of products.

The West — California, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Alaska — leads the country in terms of recreational marijuana legalization. In the East, only Massachusetts and Maine have passed similar legislation.

What about Connecticut?

Because federal laws prohibit the movement of cannabis products across state lines — it’s classified as a Schedule 1 drug — Dickstein says the laws of economics suggest that the industry will evolve more quickly in states with bigger populations.

“If adult use happens in Connecticut, it would probably look more like Colorado — where the plant needs to be grown indoors — than California, where there’s a deep, multi-generation outdoor tradition,” Dickstein says of his home state.

So you probably won’t see Solful stores in the Land of Steady Habits any time soon — if at all.

But, Peter Dickstein believes, his branded destination dispensary model can be replicated in communities like Sebastapol across the Golden State.

It’s hardly a pipe dream.

Willie Salmond’s Africa Mission

Willie Salmond is a minister, ordained by the Church of Scotland in his home country. He’s owned a house in Westport for 30 years.

But he’s spent most of his life in Africa.

There were 10 years in Ghana. Seventeen in Uganda. Three more in Zimbabwe.

Willie Salmond

Salmond worked in international development with farmers. Then he trained Peace Corps volunteers.

His life changed when he was sent to San Francisco, to learn about AIDS. He went back to a camp in Kampala, to run Uganda’s first testing and counseling through a USAID-funded program.

Salmond is retired now. He’s back in Westport, where — during his stints here — he helped coach his 2 daughters’ soccer teams. Now he’s a member of the Y’s Men.

But for 10 days last month, he made a very meaningful return to Uganda.

He met a man and woman who at age 14 had lived in his first AIDS camp. Today they lead their own program.

Recently, Salmond spoke at the Saugatuck Congregational Church. Some parishioners were surprised to learn how grateful Ugandans are for the United States’ $18 million support for antiretroviral drugs.

Learning together at an AIDS program in Uganda.

The program was begun by President George W. Bush. It was reauthorized by President Obama. It continues under President Trump.

Salmond hopes it will keep going — though no one is sure. Stopping it, he says, would be “catastrophic. Many lives have been saved. Young people are assured a healthy future.”

There is a lot in the news these days about taxes, Salmond says. He believes firmly that this program is money well spent.

Very few Americans hear about programs like this. He would like at least his fellow Westporters to know about it.

“American Housewife”: No Laughing Matter

Residents of Norwalk complained to executives in New York about a show set in Westport, and filmed in Los Angeles.

The pressure worked.

Norwalkers were fed up with their city’s portrayal on “American Housewife” — a show set here, originally and far more grossly titled “The 2nd Fattest Housewife in Westport.”

Does this dress make me look fat? Or just offensive?

A Halloween episode last month showed someone dressed up as a pregnant “Norwalk prom girl.” Other references — including one about a Westport family’s discomfort at using a Norwalk swimming pool — also portrayed our next-door neighbor in racially, ethnically and economically divisive ways.

A petition calling on ABC and Disney — its parent company — to stop insulting Norwalk was signed by over 400 Norwalkers. Another 150 signers live outside the city. Many people added comments, expressing pride in Norwalk.

In news reports on the controversy, State Senator Majority Leader Bob Duff — of Norwalk — said the show mocked children, and made light of the fact that “we are a city rich in diversity that I view as a strength, not a weakness.”

Norwalk mayor Harry Rilling and school superintendent Steven J. Adamowski joined in the criticism.

Late yesterday, the bullies backed down.

The show’s producers said: “As a comedy, ‘American Housewife’ isn’t intended to offend anyone. We’ve heard the concerns of the people of Norwalk and have made the decision to omit any mentions of the city from future episodes.”

That’s a weak, weasely non-apology.

Too bad they didn’t go one step further, and omit both Norwalk and Westport from the airwaves altogether.

(Click here for the online petition. Click here for a full list of insults to Norwalk. Hat tip: Beth Cody)

Norwalk, Connecticut – home to the Oyster Festival, SoNo, Maritime Aquarium, great shopping and restaurants, thriving diversity, strong schools, beautiful parks and beaches, wonderful people, and much more.

Facing Addiction, Ringing The NYSE Bell

Last week, Facing Addiction rang the closing New York Stock Exchange bell.

It was a big moment for the national resource and advocacy group, working to solve America’s public health crisis. With Wall Street paying attention, organization officials hope, corporate America may follow.

Westporter Jim Hood — Facing Addiction’s co-founder and CEO — at the New York Stock Exchange.

Jim Hood — Facing Addiction’s co-founder and CEO — is a longtime Westporter. He helped start the non-profit after his 20-year-old son Austin died of an accidental drug overdose.

The ceremony was a public event. But Jim made it very personal too.

On the stock exchange wall, he left this achingly simple note: