Category Archives: Economy

Buy Nothing: The Sequel

In May, “06880” posted a story on “Buy Nothing.” That’s a world-wide Facebook group, with a simple premise: You can offer anything to your neighbors — and ask for anything. The sky — and your imagination — is the limit.

The Westport page was hopping.

One group member gifted key lime pies. Another gifted a pizza making lesson. A third wished for hand-written get well cards to deliver to a local resident injured in a recent storm.

The “asks” went beyond simple requests. A post by a first time grandmother requesting a crib received a number of congratulations.

Want bikinis? They were on the Buy Nothing site. (The giver says they were worn.)

A true community developed. Friendships formed; gratitude flowed. One person thanked a group member for the gift of a shower cap. It reminds her of Paris, where she fell in love with a similar one.

Another thanked a local couple for offering their home and washing machine during a power outage.

It sounded too good to last.

It was.

In June, the international organization behind the “Buy Nothing” movement decided that the all-Westport Facebook group had gotten too big for its hyper-local britches.

Plans were announced to break Westport into 3 sections. Members were allowed access only to the neighborhood in which they live.

People responded — well, not with gratitude.

After seeing the negative reactions, most of the admin team — all local residents — vowed to find a way to keep the community united, and take back the townwide group.

They researched other Facebook gift economies, and incorporated the best aspects of the prior group.

Last week they launched the result: Westport Gift Economy—Neighbors Sharing with Neighbors.

“Our goal is to facilitate a united Westport group to give and share free of monetary exchange, so we can reestablish the townwide love, gratitude and generosity we helped foster in our last group,” says Vanessa Weinbach, an original — and new — group founder.

By the end of the first day, there were over 600 members. Just a week later, members have given and received items like a hot tub, moving boxes and personalized flower arrangements.

They also take care of their own. The daughter of a former group administrator was recently in a bad car accident. A “wish” went out for adaptive equipment to help with rehab. Members quickly found an array of medical devices.

If you live in Westport, or within half a mile of its borders, and are at least 18, you can join Westport Gift Economy — Neighbors Sharing with Neighbors (click here!).

You might find something organic blossoming dill. You might ask if someone is making an Ikea run, and can pick an item up for you.

The caring and sharing has begun — again.

Want organic dill? You can find it on the Westport Gift Economy page.

Photo Challenge #188

There were many ways to describe last week’s photo challenge.

Lauren Schiller’s shot showed a few windows, and beige and tan structures.

Some “06880” readers described them as storefronts on the Post Road, across from Bank of America. Some mentioned current tenants, like Arogya. Others placed them “down the street from old Westport Bank & Trust” (now Patagonia), “between Urban Outfitters and Nefaire Spa,” and where B&G Army Navy and Chroma card store used to be.

All are somewhat correct. Congrats to Fred Cantor, Seth Goltzer, Suzanne Raboy and Bobbie Herman.

But the folks who really nailed it — that’s you Matt Murray, Elaine Marino, Jonathan McClure, Joelle Harris Malec and Michael Calise — knew that the image actually shows the backs of those stores (117-131 Post Road East, as Elaine accurately points out).

The view is from Church Lane — in front of Bedford Square.

The buildings are architecturally undistinguished. Sometimes they fade into the landscape.

But you can’t hide anything from alert “06880” readers. (Click here for the photo, and all guesses.)

Meanwhile, with Democratic and Republican primaries coming this month, now is a good time for an election-related photo challenge:

Photo challenge 2 - Grover Fitch

(Photos/Grover Fitch)

Sure, it’s been 28 years since Lowell Weicker ran for governor (and won) as a candidate of the independent A Connecticut Party.

He’s remembered best for implementing a state income tax — a much-criticized measure that nonetheless earned him the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation’s Profiles in Courage award for taking an unpopular stand, then holding firm.

The state tax is still with us. So is this sign. Where in Westport is it?

If you know, click “Comments” below. And if you have any memories of Governor Weicker, send those along too!

 

Backpacks For A Cause

Back-to-school shopping is seldom the grinning, hand-holding experience portrayed in TV and print ads.

backpacksKids worry they’ll have the “wrong” notebooks or pens.  Parents fear they’ll forget something important, and their kid’s teacher will think they’re idiots.

Other Westporters have a deeper, more realistic fear:  They can’t pay for everything their kids need.

Fortunately, Westport’s Human Services Department is on the case.

Its annual Back to School program, offering supplies to eligible families, is underway.

The program provides new backpacks and gift cards (Staples Office Supply, Walmart, Target) to income-eligible families with children in the Westport schools. Cash donations to the program are welcome too.

Last year, scores of youngsters received assistance. Director of Human Services Elaine Daignault estimated the number as equivalent to 10 classrooms of kids.

“A growing number of Westport families face the burden of financial hardship,” she notes.

“Back-to-school time can be particularly stressful on a family budget. Thanks to generous Westporters, our department provides discreet assistance to families who want to give their children the best possible start to the school year.

“Parents can share in the excitement of back-to-school shopping with their children. And donors can be confident that 100% of their donations benefit their Westport neighbors.”

The program depends entirely on the generosity of individuals and organizations.  Tax-deductible monetary donations of any amount made payable to “Families in Need Fund” (memo: “Backpacks”), as well as gift cards, can be sent to: Human Services, 110 Myrtle Ave. (Town Hall), Westport CT 06880.

New backpacks can be dropped off at the department offices, Room 200 in Town Hall, Monday through Friday between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m., now through August 20.

To find out if you qualify for assistance, contact Margaret Piheiro at 341-1050, or email emilton@westportct.gov.

Compo Beach: 2018 Style

Compo Beach sure looks and feels a lot different this year than last.

If you haven’t noticed, you’re not paying attention.

Or maybe you can’t get in.

A quick recap: This past winter — in response to Westporters’ rising complaints about overcrowded parking, picnic tables and sand — the Parks and Recreation Commission did some rising itself.

They raised the price of season beach stickers for Weston residents, from $250 to $375. They raised it for all other non-residents even more: from $490 to $775.

Daily passes rose too. They’re now $50 on weekdays, $65 on weekends.

Westporters’ prices rose slightly. A season sticker is now $50 ($25 for seniors).

Parks & Rec also instituted caps on sales. They limited non-resident sticker sales to 350 (from the previous 600). And — perhaps most significantly — there is now a daily cap: No more than 100 non-residents are allowed in each day. Signs on nearby roads indicate when the limit has been reached (sometimes as early as noon).

South Compo Road, just before the Minute Man.

Add in newly remodeled bathrooms on both sides of the bathhouses, and extra grills at South Beach; a new entrance pattern and special parking area for non-residents — leaving prime beachfront spots for Westporters — and the difference is palpable.

Many beachgoers love the “new” Compo. They applaud the space they’ve got, the availability of picnic tables and grills, even the lower decibel level.

Compo Beach isn’t always this empty. But it’s a lot less crowded than it used to be.

Others are less pleased.

They wonder about lost revenue. Though Parks & Rec said that increased fees would pay for better maintenance and the full-time cop, it seems from anecdotal evidence and those daily cap signs that the beach is bringing in a lot less money than it used to.

That probably also affects Joey’s by the Shore. It may have contributed to PAL sitting on a few hundred unsold fireworks tickets this year — thousands of dollars that won’t go to programs and kids.

And smaller crowds means less “life” at the beach. There are fewer languages spoken, fewer games played on the grass, fewer opportunities to share our shore with others.

Plenty of people think that’s great. It’s our beach — paid for by our tax dollars.

Others miss the out-of-town regulars they used to see, and worry we’ve only added to our “elitist” image.

What do you think? Do you love the changes, and think they’re long overdue? Do you think they’re too draconian? Are you conflicted?

Click “Comments” below. And — as always — please keep things civil. Play nice in the sand.

As part of its changes, Parks & Rec posted several signs outlining rules at Compo Beach.

Westport Is Really Anytown USA

Sure, we may be entering the mother of all global trade wars.

No, you probably don’t want to buy t-shirts or sneakers made by 9-year-olds in an overseas sweatshop.

But how can you know which products were made in a foreign country, and which come from the good ol’ USA?

Just click on AnytownUSA.

The website — which calls itself the first-ever “American Made Marketplace” — is Geralyn Breig’s brainchild. A high-powered Wharton grad who served as president of Clarks America, Avon North America and Godiva Chocolatier International, she may be promoting Anytown.

But she lives and works in Our Town.

The site went live less than a month ago. It offers thousands of products, and dozens of sellers. Its bread and butter is local artisans, small businesses and locally made products. They range from apparel and accessories to home goods, and from individually crafted one-of-a-kind pieces to large-scale manufactured merchandise.

The only requirement: Every product must be made in this country.

Geralyn Breig (right) and seller Michelle Ciarlo Hayes on the recent SiriusXM “Tastemakers” program.

Consumer Reports says that 80% of Americans would prefer to buy American-made goods than comparable, imported ones. Over 60% say they’d pay a slight premium.

Breig spent the past year traveling across the country, meeting people who make items domestically. She also found some right here, at last winter’s Westport Young Woman’s League holiday crafts show.

Now — from her office on Post Road West — she’s given them all a platform to connect with shoppers from coast to coast.

(Click here for AnytownUSA. Social media links include Twitter  @anytown_usa_; Facebook @AnytownUSA.marketplace; Instagram @anytown_usa_ and Pinterest: @AnytownUSAcom.

Danny Fishman: From Goldman Sachs To Guitar Tracks

In 2015 — straight out of college — Danny Fishman landed what many Westporters consider a dream job: Goldman Sachs.

It seemed like the perfect segue: from Staples High School and Tufts University, to prestige, stability and happiness.

Except it wasn’t.

Fishman had always been successful. At Staples, he was part of state and FCIAC championship volleyball teams. He snagged a Goldman internship in college, the summer before senior year.

Danny Fishman, Staples High School volleyball star.

Yet, he says now, that internship — and the subsequent job offer — was just “a retreat to safety.”

His good friend Andrew Accardi died during Fishman’s junior year at Tufts. “I did a lot of soul-searching,” Fishman says. “I felt lucky for my own life, and terrible that his had been cut short. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I just knew I didn’t want to drift passively.”

He set his sights on finance, as “a challenge. I thought I’d find purpose and direction there.”

He moved to Battery Park. He was assigned to the prime brokerage branch in the securities division. He learned the ropes and earned greater responsibilities, including client interaction. There was plenty of socializing with his fellow hires.

However, he says, “I didn’t identify with the values of the people around me. The uniformity, the hive mind, the mentality of what success looked like — it was omnipresent.”

He did not fit in.

Danny Fishman

“From an abstract point of view, I don’t disagree with the sense of vicious competitiveness,” Fishman explains. “I just didn’t see myself that way.”

He felt “beat up, exhausted. I didn’t know if I had a ton to offer, or if I should offer what I had.”

Though it was “a pretty miserable experience from the get-go,” he does not want to exaggerate the experience. Half of his best friends now are people he met at work.

He had made a commitment to himself to stick it out — “if I get good at this, will I feel better about it?” he asked himself — but when he got a how-you-doing postcard from Accardi’s mother, he took it as a sign.

After a year and a half at Goldman Sachs, he quit.

Fishman moved back home to Westport (an option he knows is not readily available to many). He “let go of the fear of trying to pursue something in music” — a hobby that had always brought him joy and energy, but that he had never committed himself to.

He studied the craft of performing. He wrote music. He took a cross-country trip, crashing on friends’ couches and stepping up at open mic nights in Nashville, Austin, Denver and Los Angeles.

Wherever he stopped, he made new friends.

Danny Fishman on stage.

Fishman recorded a demo of songs he’d written. He “stumbled forward,” learning about promotion and booking.

His first single got 28,000 plays on Spotify. His second got 9,000 in just the first 5 days.

Back home, he met Katie Noonan in a doctor’s waiting room. They chatted; he learned she was a musician too. He had his guitar — he brings it everywhere — and sang for her. She’s offered plenty of support (including a gig at her 50th birthday party).

“A rising tide lifts all boats,” Fishman has learned. “And failure doesn’t feel bad when it’s in pursuit of something you want to do.”

When he “failed” in finance, he says, “I beat myself up. In music, failure leads to something productive.”

The music community, he found, is not a zero-sum game. He has been helped by many performers, writers and producers, and tries to help others.

Danny Fishman and Katie Noona

I told Fishman that a story like this will bring negative comments from readers, lambasting him for turning his back on a well-paying job he got in part because of his background, then returning to that very environment.

“I am super, super lucky to have parents with a home I can come back to,” he says. “Westport is a beautiful place, with lots of resources. I know I’ve been blessed in life.”

But, he continues, “Having money doesn’t make everything easy. If people don’t view my experiences as legit, nothing I can do will change that.”

So, if he went back to counsel himself as a Staples senior in 2011 — not knowing what he wanted, or how to get it — what would he say?

“Try not to worry so much about what other people think of you,” he says. “Be who you are, even if it doesn’t conform to the image of success others painted for you.”

Meanwhile, Danny Fishman will continue to record and tour. He’ll try to “stay true to what I want, and pursue it maturely and responsibly.”

Sounds like a recipe for success, in any field.

Steve Obsitnik: Westport’s Gubernatorial Candidate

Here are 2 of Westport’s best-kept secrets:

  • There’s a primary election for governor on August 14.
  • And there’s a Westporter on the ballot.

Steve Obsitnik is that candidate. A Connecticut native, Naval Academy graduate, entrepreneur and CEO, he got enough votes at the state Republican convention to battle the party’s endorsed candidate, Danbury mayor Mark Boughton.

Obsitnik’s name might be tough to remember (and spell), but he’s familiar to local residents. He was president of the Westport Weston YMCA, served on the Republican Town Committee, is involved with the Saugatuck Rowing Club — and in 2012 he ran his first political campaign, against incumbent Congressman Jim Himes.

Obsitnik’s RV — covered with signatures and words of encouragement — is familiar around town too. The other day it was parked in the Imperial Avenue lot. The candidate pulled out 2 lawn chairs, invited me to sit down, and chatted about himself and his campaign.

Among the signatures on Steve Obsitnik’s RV: Ned Lamont, the Democratic Party-endorsed candidate for governor.

He’s a Stamford High School graduate and soccer player who still has nightmares of Mike Clifford leading Staples to an 8-0 drubbing. Obsitnik was recruited by top schools, and won an appointment to Annapolis. Vision issues limited his collegiate career, so he concentrated on engineering (and graduated with honors).

He spent 5 years as a nuclear submarine officer, earning 8 medals for distinguished service. He served in Groton and South Carolina, and the Mediterranean during the first Gulf War. He also chased Russian subs under the North Pole.

His next stop was Wharton, for an MBA. On his first day of classes he met Suzy Tager, a 1986 Staples graduate. “We walked for hours through Philadelphia,” Obsitnik says. “We’ve been walking together ever since.”

She got a job with Bain Capital (and now heads their retail consumer products practice). He joined the Stanford Research Institute, helping create technology for the government.

Steve Obsitnik, his wife and daughters.

Moving on to Sarnoff Labs and Qinetiq, Obsitnik helped create products like video on demand, artificial intelligence — and Siri.

In 2005 — after 4 years in Minnesota — he and his wife felt it was time to “come  home.” They moved in with her parents on Imperial Avenue. When he started Quintel, which manufactures smart antennas, he realized that despite all Connecticut offered, it lacked the ecosystem to develop and sustain companies like his.

In 2011, after a 2-day trip to India, he suffered a pulmonary embolism. His 2 daughters were young. He reassessed his work-life balance, while wondering how he could put his entrepreneur and engineering skills to work to help his state.

After his Congressional defeat the next year to Himes, Obsitnik started Imagine Connecticut, a non-profit whose goal was to make this a Top 10 job-creation state within 10 years.

His travels took him to every corner of Connecticut. He listened and learned about economic, infrastructure, transportation and education concerns. Having lived in 4 state zip codes — and looking at the field of gubernatorial candidates — he threw his hat in the ring.

“For the past 40 years there’s been a lot of self-interest” in Hartford, he says — “both Republican and Democratic. We need a big vision to keep people together. That’s one of the lessons I learned from my leadership positions.”

Obsitnik’s big vision: create 300,000 jobs in 5 years.

Steve Obsitnik

A primary election is very different from the general. Republicans make up just 23% of voters statewide, Obsitnik says — and only 100,000 generally vote in primaries.

Advertising in this area — the New York market — is prohibitively expensive. So he’s organized a ground game. He’ll knock on as many doors as possible. He will follow the Mitchells model: find your customers, “hug them” and hold them.

If he wins the primary, he says, he will not change his message for the general election. He’ll continue to emphasize job creation. “I don’t want to win the battle, and lose the war.”

Obsitnik is unfazed by his party affiliation. He points to the job creation efforts of Massachusetts’ Republican Governor (and former businessman) Charlie Baker as a model.

“I’m a military veteran. I support our commander-in-chief, whether it’s Barack Obama or Donald Trump,” the Westporter says.

“I’m running for governor of the state. Trump didn’t create Connecticut’s problems, and he won’t solve them. This election isn’t about Donald Trump. It’s about housing prices, the amount of time every day I lose to my wife on the train, and jobs.”

It’s a message Steve Obsitnik will repeat all around the state, every day through August 14.

And, he hopes, all the way to November 6.

FUN FACTS: Westport State Representative Julie Belaga won a Republican primary, and ran for governor in 1986. She lost to Democratic incumbent William O’Neill. Westport Republican John Davis Lodge served as Connecticut governor from 1951 to 1955. 

And The Most Affordable Beach Town In The US Is …

… Westport.

No, not the one in Massachusetts. Or Washington state.

Yes, the one in Connecticut.

That’s not me talking.

It’s not the Westport (and Weston) Chamber of Commerce.

It’s WNBC. Channel 4.

Before you go all #FakeNews, read what the tri-state TV station had to say:

If you want beachfront property with oceans views, forget Florida or Hawaii — try Westport, Connecticut instead.

Yes, Westport.

The affluent Connecticut town actually ranks as the most affordable ocean-facing beach town in America, according to a new WalletHub survey released Wednesday.

This is the photo WNBC used to illustrate its story on Westport’s spectacular beach town ranking score. Based on the waves, it was not taken anywhere near Compo Beach.

The study compared 161 ocean-adjacent cities in 6 different categories, and Westport ranked 1st for affordability (calculated primarily by housing costs, household income and property taxes).

It also ranked 1st for education and health, which was based on the quality of the school system and local hospitals.

Overall the town ranked 9th, making it the only Top 10 city not located in California, Florida or Hawaii.

WNBC did not provide a link to the survey — unless you clicked on the one labeled “America’s Worst Ocean Beach Town To Live In Is In NY,”* which (with 1 more click) did lead to “Best Ocean Beach Towns.”

In addition to learning that we live on “the ocean,” the survey shows that our #9 score lands us just above Key West (!) in the overall rankings that combine affordability, weather, safety and economy.

But we are indeed the most affordable beach town — #1, Numero Uno, the Big Kahuna** — on the affordability index.

A typical home in the very affordable beach town of Westport. It was listed at a mere $8,850,000.

We lose points for the weather (duh). Perhaps that’s why we trail (in order, from #8 to #1) Kihei, Hawaii; Boca Raton, Florida; Santa Monica, California; St. Augustine Florida; Mill Valley, California; Sarasota, Florida; Naples, Florida, and the absolute bestest beach town in the entire USA, Lahaina, Hawaii.

Yeah, yeah. I know. Mill Valley is even less on “the ocean” than we are.

But who you gonna believe: National Geographic or WalletHub?

(Click here for the full survey. Then print it out and save it, for the next town budget discussion.) 

*It’s Shirley, Long Island

**Appropriate, considering that 2 of the Top 10 Beach Towns are in Hawaii.

We do lose points for weather. (Photo/Samuel Wang)

(Hat tips: Rick Leonard and Hedi Lieberman)

Police Pension Draws National Attention

A pension dispute involving Westport’s Police Department has drawn national attention.

The Economic Policy Institute — a left-leaning think tank — is focusing on a dispute between the police union (AFSCME Local 2080) and the town.

Negotiations have gone to binding arbitration. A decision may come this fall.

“Why would Westport mess with a system that works?” asks economist Monique Morrissey on the EPI’s Working Economics Blog.

“The police department is tiny and the town can easily afford the benefits. In the 2015-2016 fiscal year, spending on police pensions amounted to just 1.2 percent of the town’s revenues, so even drastic benefit cuts wouldn’t noticeably affect anyone’s tax bill.

“Westport’s property tax rate is already among the lowest in the state, though taxes are high in dollar terms as would be expected for a wealthy town in a high cost of living area.”

Morrissey notes that Westport police officers do not receive Social Security, nor is overtime factored into their final pensions. She frames efforts to reduce Westport police pensions as part of “an ideological campaign” to get rid of pensions in favor of riskier 401(k)-style savings plans.

She says that kind of campaign could backfire as municipalities start to restore benefits in an effort to prevent losing experienced officers.

“The 64 members of the Westport police department, who signed on for what they thought was a career of public service that would be rewarded with a secure retirement, may still pay a price, unless the citizens of Westport realize that that the police force they have come to rely on may be torn apart by shortsighted pension ‘reforms,’” Morrissey writes.

Click here to read Morrissey’s full story.

“The Hate U Give” Brings Schools Together

There’s tons of talk about the vast gulf between school districts in Connecticut. Westport and Bridgeport — just a few miles apart — offer particularly stark differences.

Much of the time, it’s only talk.

But a collaboration involving 2 schools, 4 English teachers, and 95 students this year showed what happens when people try to bridge the gap.

The project began with Staples High School librarian Colin Neenan. He thought The Hate U Give — a popular young adult novel about a girl who becomes an activist after witnessing the police shooting of her unarmed friend, and exists in both her urban neighborhood and a wealthy private school — would be a great vehicle to bring suburban and city students together.

Danielle Spies and Barb Robbins — who teach 3A and 2 Honors English respectively at Staples — were selected from among several volunteers. Neenan and co-librarian Tamara Weinberg connected with Fola Sumpter and Ashley LaQuesse, Harding High teachers who were enthusiastic about the collaboration.

First, Westport students went to the Bridgeport school. They met their counterparts, and discussed the first 26 pages of the novel.

One of Robbins’ students was nervous about meeting new, “different” people, the teacher says.

After the first session though, she told Robbins, “They’re just like me. We had so much to talk about.”

Staples literacy coach Rebecca Marsick — who was also involved in the project — adds, “They’re all teenagers!”

Staples and Harding High School students work easily together.

A dramatic reaction came from a Westport girl. She was stunned to hear Bridgeporters say that nearly every day they heard of a friend treated unfairly by police — and at least once a month, someone they knew was shot by an officer.

“I couldn’t think of even one person who had a really negative interaction with the police,” she said.

“I never doubted that people of color constantly face racism. I just never heard about it face to face. It’s crazy to me that I can live a town away from them, and have such a different life experience.”

The next step involved Flipgrid, a video education platform. For 6 weeks the teenagers exchanged videos, posted questions about the novel, and shared responses.

They also read articles about race relations throughout history, explored current events, and studied pop culture and poetry. The common thread was themes that both unite and divide communities.

After 6 weeks, the Harding students came to Staples. They gathered in the library for lunch, free-wheeling discussions, and a special activity.

They created “body biographies”: mapping out what various characters from the novel held in their heart and backbone, for example, and what their eyes focused on.

Collaborating on a “body biography.”

They dug deep — and shared their own lives and experiences too.

“The book is not easy. There are some hefty topics,” Robbins says. “But the interactions were sensitive, and very respectful.”

Then they all posed for a group photo.

The final project was to write stories about current events, and share them with everyone.

Some students said the project was the most important experience they’d ever had in high school. One called it “the most important event of my life.”

“It opened our kids’ eyes to their opportunities here,” Robbins says. “But they also saw how much they have in common with the Bridgeport kids.”

Last fall, two Staples girls wrote research papers on inequality in educational opportunities. To actually see that gap with their own eyes, they told Robbins, was “really compelling.”

The Staples instructor echoes her students’ reactions.

“It took a lot of work. There were logistical issues, and tons of preparation. But this is one of the best things I’ve ever done as a teacher. I learned so much!”

Fola Sumpter — one of the Harding teachers — adds, “This project gave my students confidence as readers, writers and collaborators. They have a new perspective on people, and I am seeing them operate as thinkers on a whole new level.”

A group shot, in the Staples library.

The collaboration may not end. Among other ideas, students from both schools talked about forming a book club.

That’s a great idea. But it’s not as easy as it sounds.

“In Westport, if we want to add a book to our curriculum, we pretty much can,” Robbins says.

“In Bridgeport, they have a tough time even funding the books they already study.”