Category Archives: Economy

Persona Of The Week: Westport’s Human Services Department

With the holiday season in full swing, Westporters frantically shuttle between shopping and holiday parties.

Yet despite our perceived affluence, many families here struggle to buy gifts for their kids, or pay heating bills as the weather gets colder.

In this week’s “Persona” 06880 interview, Rob Simmelkjaer sits with Susan Stefenson and Annette D’Augelli of Westport’s Department of Human Services. They discuss how Westporters can lend a hand to neighbors in need this holiday season.

Post Road Real Estate: Tenants Needed!

In June of 2017, alert “06880” reader/Westport Museum of History and Culture house historian Bob Weingarten drove the entire Westport stretch of the Post Road. He counted the number of commercial buildings with either a “For Rent” or “For Sale” sign.

There were 50.

He shared the information on “06880.” It generated 57 comments.

Two years later he did it again. This time there were 65 commercial properties  looking for tenants — 15 more. Many — including 2 former banks, a gas station and several large retail storefronts — were still vacant from 2 years earlier.

The Mobil Self-Serve property next to Barnes & Noble remains vacant.

Once again, Bob’s story touched a nerve. Fifty readers commented.

The 3rd time — a couple of weeks ago — showed another increase. Now, 72 commercial buildings are available for rent or purchase.

Bob says that one bank building was added to the already empty two. Large retail storefronts still not occupied include the old Pier 1,  and XL Clothing building.

The Mobil gas station near Barnes & Noble, and the large garden center near Stop & Shop are still vacant.

Additionally, 2 new commercial buildings near the new Ignazio’s Pizza (just west of Sherwood Diner), with townhouses in the rear, are unoccupied.

Newly constructed — and not yet rented — space at the foot of Long Lots and the Post Road.

Bob is “alarmed” by the number of empty stores adjacent to Fresh Market.

A renovated large office building on Post Road West will start renting in January, for use as co-working and shared offices.

Empty space on Post Road West, just up the hill from Wright Street.

“I don’t understand how we can be told the economy is getting better and better, with the increasing number of available, empty commercial units,” Bob says.

And, he adds, his figures do not include the apartments that may be available across from Greens Farms Elementary School, or the new townhouses near the diner.

“Several empty available commercial spaces are now occupied — but they are relocations from other spaces on the Post Road, filling one spot but leaving another unoccupied,” he notes. These include Sam Slots Coins, Millie Rae’s and Earth Animal.

“What is going on in the Westport commercial economy?” he asks.

Tons of available space near Fresh Market. (Photos/Bob Weingarten)

[OPINION] Westporter Urges: Make Good Choices. Support Local Businesses.

Michael Smith is an alert “06880” reader, a longtime Westporter and a financial advisor. He writes:

We all have choices to make. We should understand the impact of every choice.

The other day I read in the New York Times about a hardware store closing in Manhattan. Not exactly unheard-of in the age of the internet and Amazon.

It was by a Columbia Law professor who wrote a book on the impacts on small businesses in America, from increasing corporate influence and rising rents in wealthy areas of the country. That’s something worth considering, as residents of Westport.

All of our local businesses have 2 things in common. One is that they contribute to the tax base; the other is that they have some “ripple effect.”

Indulge by Mersene on Railroad Place is a very cool, funky — and thriving — local business.

The contribution to the tax base is obvious, but the implications from declining contributions to our town budget from the state level are becoming increasingly important.

It’s harder to quantify when you click “buy now” on the web, along with impacts on the environment from single-use plastics and our collective carbon footprint.

The other “ripple effect” — which is much harder to see — is the choices individuals and small businesses make from the standpoint of investment in maintaining or opening new businesses, and where to own personal real estate.

Last April, I attended a panel discussion sponsored by the Coalition for Westport which attempted to discuss some of these issues and develop awareness. That session highlighted the complexity of the issues and difficulties of making change a plurality can agree on.

More awareness and involvement would be beneficial, because at the very least it helps us all understand that we can make a difference by recognizing the impact of our choices.

Westport residents would do well to consider the long-term impacts on our tax base and property values from short-term decisions, such as where to buy light bulbs, screws, household items and clothing. These purely economic considerations play a large role in the broader concept of community.

Where do yhou buy screws or lightbulbs?

I advocate for all of us to make a conscious commitment to consider what item or substitute could be purchased here in Westport, or very close by, to help sustain the economic component of our community.

I have no personal interest in writing this. I am a 25-plus-year resident of Westport, and a financial advisor who understands the rapid and far-reaching dynamics of our global economy in the 21st century.

As I told my children when they were young; “Life is about choices. Make good ones.”

“06880” Persona Interview: Board Of Finance Candidate Nancie Dupier

“06880” continues our series of “Persona” video interviews with candidates for local office. Rob Simmelkjaer produces these, as part of his new venture that helps users create casual, interesting conversational videos.

Today’s interview is with Democratic Board of Finance candidate Nancie Dupier. Click below:

To see all the Persona candidate interviews — and others — click here.

Make A Difference — And Help For the Holidays

It started out as “Make a Difference Day.” Now, the Westport event spans the entire month of October.

The goal is for volunteers to help local non-profits. They register their projects; willing hands are then matched with needs.

Projects are updated regularly. They include painting, maintenance, helping with compost piles, collecting used eyeglasses and children’s clothes — you name it. Click here for a list.

To register a project — or volunteer for one — click here.

It’s a month-long event — but Saturday, October 26 is special. Volunteers will gather at Christ & Holy Trinity Church at 9 a.m. They’ll assemble toiletry bags for homeless men, comfort bags for abused women, arts and craft kits for children in need, and Hug a Senior bags.

Click here for the full Make a Difference Day Month website. For more information, call Barbara Pearson-Rac: 203-226-1390.

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Meanwhile, it’s not even Halloween. But Westport’s Department of Human Services is already thinking about the holidays.

They see a side of town most Westporters never do. The Town Hall staff knows our neighbors are coping with layoffs, reduced work hours, even foreclosures.

For years, Human Services has facilitated a Holiday Giving Program. It’s as important today as it ever was.

Residents can donate grocery and gas gift cards of any amount, as well as gift cards to local stores.

Cash donations are always welcome. They allow for the purchase of last-minute gift cards for clients. Residents who wish to shop for a family’s actual gift requests can do so, at whatever level the donor feels comfortable.

Organizations — including non-profits, religious institutions and businesses — can donate too.

The more the “merrier,” for sure.

(To donate online, click here; select “Holiday Giving” in the the “Seasonal Program” dropdown prompt. Checks made payable to “DHS Family Programs” — with “Holiday” on the memo line — may be mailed to Human Services, c/o Town Hall, 110 Myrtle Avenue, Westport, CT 06880, or dropped off there in Room 200. For more information, email familyprograms@westportct.gov, or call 203-341-1183. Families that need support during the holidays should call 203-341-1050.)

[OPINION] Danielle Dobin: A Vision For Westport Middle School Education

Danielle Dobin is the mother of a Staples High School 9th grader and a Bedford Middle School 6th grader, and vice chair of Westport’s Planning & Zoning Commission. Like many Westporters, she has followed the debate over the future of our middle schools — begun a year ago, when mold caused the closure of Coleytown — with great interest.

School district officials, the Boards of Education and Finance, and a special committee are moving ahead with plans to renovate CMS, and reopen it next fall. However, Dobin says, that may not be the right move. She writes:

While the closure of Coleytown Middle School has been a challenge for our community, we can turn it into an opportunity. We can create a modern and innovative middle school that delivers excellent education to all students.

Right now, we are on a path to spend $32 million (minimum) to renovate CMS.  But many in town question that path. They wonder about the wisdom of revamping a building designed by the standards of 1965. They are beginning to see the demographic challenges of running 2 middle schools with declining enrollment. Most importantly, they are beginning to question the rush to get back into CMS without carefully considering all options.

Coleytown Middle School is closed due to mold. Right now, it is set to reopen next fall.

It’s time to pause, and review all the new data and information at our disposal.  It is time to finally have the kind of community conversation a decision of this importance demands.

I want to be clear for those who are only now engaged in this process: When CMS closed, there was no thoughtful discussion — much less a town-wide debate — about what kind of middle school structure would best serve the needs of 21st century education in Westport.

Other important matters like the Downtown Plan and Saugatuck Transit-Oriented Development involved meaningful public outreach and various charettes, surveys and meetings to gauge public opinion. There was nothing like that last year.

Timing (“get CMS back as quickly as possible”) was prioritized over thoughtful consideration of all options available to us. The Board of Education did begin a process to explore options, but this was quickly circumvented. As a result, we did not plan for the future. We simply opted to re-create the past.

So what has changed?

First, let’s recognize that we have time to develop a thoughtful solution. Middle school at Bedford is working well. With the improvements of additional teaching and office spaces, a 9-period day and a merged student population, students are thriving.

We are no longer in the time crunch we thought we were in. We have the flexibility to take the time necessary to decide the best path forward in terms of design, budget and vision.

Bedford Middle School currently houses every 6th, 7th and 8th grader in town.

Second, as is becoming increasingly obvious, our demographics no longer easily support the choice to maintain 2 middle schools. Moreover, the work of the Board of Ed and the many maps circulated by their demographer make clear that while some redistricting plans may create parity in the middle schools in terms of balanced enrollment, it comes at great cost to our elementary schools.

At the elementary school level, these plans create immense disruption. They lead to dramatic under- and over-utilization of various schools. No simple re-balancing solution on the table achieves all of the criteria set forth by the Board of Education.

This was not understood by most residents — or even many elected officials — until quite recently.

Third, the CMS Taskforce under the strong leadership of Don O’Day has done a fine job of researching the cost to repair CMS and managing a complicated process. My call to rethink our path is in no way a criticism of their important work.

In fact, they can concurrently continue their process while as a town we mull whether we want to actually repair CMS.

Construction has not yet begun at CMS, so sunk costs are minimal. Before we decide as a town that we want to spend millions of dollars repairing a circa-1965 building, let’s confirm that the cost will be limited to $32 million.

Let’s also figure out our tipping point. What if the cost to repair is $35 million. What if it’s $45 million?

I propose we take advantage of all the new information, and reconsider the path we are taking. Let’s take a thoughtful look at all the options: continuing on the current path, building a new state-of-the-art middle school, or creating one spectacular unified middle school for the entire district.

One unified middle school campus — with an addition designed in concert with our educators and administrators — has many advantages:

1. Every middle school student will be educated in a modern space, thoughtfully designed for the team-teaching method and reflective of our needs in 2020 and beyond.

2. A unified middle school will drive all our resources to a centralized campus, where our talented educators can collaborate and innovate across grade cohorts and areas of study.

3. A unified middle school will resolve our demographic issues for a long time, without a disruptive redistricting to achieve the optimal balance.

4. We can look as a community to the current CMS site to create a resource for all our schools: a modern computer lab to provide for coding and programming classes, a science lab for our Science Olympians, and indoor fields for our athletes.  We can dream big.

The Planning & Zoning Commission invites every stakeholder to a special planning session to discuss this important topic on October 22 (7 p.m., Town Hall).

Public comment from all Westport residents is welcome and encouraged. If you want to leave a written comment, please comment here — in the sunlight where everyone can see — and not on private Facebook groups that have segmented us into elementary school parents, middle school parents and everyone else. (Click “Comments” below — and use full, real names.)

The P&Z staff will ensure that every comment left on this public forum is included in the public record. Whether you favor a unified middle school, a newly built state-of-the-art CMS or a rehabbed CMS, please voice your thoughts.

The CMS Taskforce has not yet begun to spend the full $32 million. It’s time to be deliberative, not impulsive. There is a lot of new information to consider regarding demographics, redistricting and the benefits of a unified middle school.

This is a huge expenditure for our town. It will impact everyone’s taxes.

Let’s be sure it reflects how the public envisions our middle school institutions over the next 3 decades.

School Calendar Showcases Student Art

The 2019-20 school year is underway.

But it hasn’t really started unless you’ve gotten your Westport Public Schools calendar.

How else will you know every concert, play and meeting, at every school in town?

Not to mention — far more importantly — every vacation, day off, even half days?

This year’s Westport edition — published by Friends of Westport Public Art Collections — is on sale now. (Including at Back to School Nights. Even without the calendar, you know when those are — right? It’s in last year’s calendar. Every year’s calendar runs 13 months: September to September.)


The cover of the 2019-20 Westport School Calendar was designed by Coleytown Elementary School kindergartner Beatrice Anderson. Her colorful image shows the a variety of school mascots.

The calendar is as Westport as it gets. Works from young local artists and photographers — representing every school — fill the pages. They’re culled from a record 646 entries (up from 178 in 2018!). They show our water, sunsets, woods, wildlife and more.

In addition to Back to School Night, you can order the Westport Schools Calendar online (click here). It’s available too at ASF, Earthplace and the Westport Library.

All proceeds support the Westport Public Art Collections.

The back cover — showing National Hall — is courtesy of Saugatuck Elementary School 3rd grader Liam Harrison.

DownUnder Paddles Away

Downunder — the cool kayak and paddleboard rental shop that was one of the first businesses to bring new life to revitalized Saugatuck Center, 8 years ago — is closing soon. An email sent yesterday to customers from owner Kim Hawkins said:

After 15 successful years in the paddlesport industry, Downunder will close its doors following Labor Day weekend.

It’s been a long, satisfying and joyful run, and I am heartbroken it’s coming to an end.

Downunder is located in the building on the left.

Downunder has touched so many lives. We’ve made the water accessible to people of all ages and demographics, empowered, energized and provided exciting experiences to all. My personal favorite has been the underserved and at-risk in our community, the disabled, homeless, those with substance abuse issues. Time and again clients have said to me, “Downunder saved my life.” That’s the power of water, and being treated like family.

Many of you have known me and this business since it started in 2005, formerly known as Below Deck, an adorable cabana-like business that Barbara Conroy inspired, located under the Rowayton Market.

Sam Gault of Hamilton Development (and Gault Energy) allowed me the opportunity to open a second location on the Saugatuck River in 2011. And then the town of Darien invited me to operate a satellite operation at Weed Beach from 2017.

Downunder had a great location, on the Saugatuck River.

The last few years have been a struggle, with the economic climate, tidal restrictions, and most recently, pollution on the Saugatuck River. So I have decided: it’s time.

I want to thank you all – my whanau (family), for your support and encouragement over the years. A business such as this is only as good as it’s people, so my thanks too, to everyone that has worked for me. As a former employee, Danny Giannatasio, said, “Downunder is the first job I’ve had, where I’ve actually wanted to get up and go to work,” and so it was.

There will be a storewide sale of course — “everything must go,” as they say. I hope you will stop by and bid farewell to this iconic institution.

Ngā mihi nui me te aroha nui, ka kite anō — lots of thanks, lots of love, see you again.

A serene Downunder scene.

(Hat tip: Seth Schachter)

Toys R Tariffs: The Melissa & Doug Connection

President Trump’s on-again, off-again tariff decisions have rattled the global economy.

Here in the US, sectors ranging from aluminum to footwear have felt whipsawed by decisions made and remade in the White House. The latest industry is a big one: toys.

Earlier this week, the president delayed a new 10 percent tariff on some Chinese imports, from September 1 to December 15. That gives toy manufacturers some breathing room, before and during the make-or-break holiday season.

Melissa and Doug Bernstein

Westport has an important dog in this hunt. Melissa & Doug was founded in 1988 by Doug and Melissa Bernstein, in his parents’ garage on Guyer Road. Over the past 31 years it’s become a highly respected creator, manufacturer and distributor of educational toys, including wooden puzzles, arts and crafts products and more.

Bernstein breathed a sigh of relief at the tariff delay. But, he said yesterday, the larger question is the entire concept of a “trade war.”

“Wars are not good,” he said. “They cause casualties: human, social and economic. Calling this a ‘war’ is not a good thing.” He would prefer to see trade policy discussed “amicably.”

Like most American toy companies, the vast majority — 85 to 90% — of Melissa & Doug’s products are made in China.

This founders did not set out to manufacture overseas. Years ago, Bernstein said, he brought prototypes to factories across in the US. No one wanted the job.

The issue was not price. Rather, it was the “massive amount of handiwork” that goes into each Melissa & Doug item. “They can’t be stamped out” — and American factories could not do it at a price that would be reasonable for consumers.

A small selection of Melissa & Doug toys.

Over the years, Melissa & Doug built strong relationships in China. Today, around 200 or so employees oversee quality and inspection there. “They work for us,” he said. “They’re not 3rd-party contractors.”

While other companies talk about moving production to other parts of the world — Vietnam and India are often mentioned — Melissa & Doug worries about losing quality control.

“We have 3 tenets,” the co-founder says. “We make educational products for children; we make them with the absolute best quality we can, and we price them as affordably as possible. We don’t want them accessible only to kids who grow up in a place like Westport.”

So — even with higher tariffs — Bernstein and his wife are committed to “not passing on higher pricing to consumers. Other companies say that if the tariffs take effect on December 15, they’ll have to raise prices by 10, 20 or 25% in 2020. We’re working very hard not to do that. We would probably absorb most, if not all, of the cost.”

They’ve already been tested. In addition to toys, Melissa & Doug produce items like chalk and markers. They’ve already been hit with several million dollars in tariffs — and have not raised prices.

Bernstein sounds a hopeful note, though. “Honestly, I didn’t think the tariffs would happen on September 1. And I think there’s a high likelihood they won’t happen on December 15. This is a game of chess, and we’re pawns. No one gains from a trade war. I think agreements will be reached.”

Besides chess, Bernstein uses another analogy to describe the last few months.

“We’ve been on a roller coaster,” he says. “It would be one thing if there were transparent discussions. But for us — and everyone in the industry — it’s been up and down, on and off, 10%, 25%, September 1, December 15.”

That’s one game the Westport toy manufacturer has no desire to play.

Charlie Drozdyk: “Job Moron”

If you’re a college graduate looking for a job, you know: It’s tough.

In fact, if you’ve ever looked for a job, you know it’s hard.

As Charlie Drozdyk notes, for decades — centuries? — people have said, “This is a really bad time to be looking for work.” No one ever says, “This year, we have tons of jobs!”

But, Charlie adds — quoting a senior VP of programming at MTV — “There’s always jobs. And there’s never jobs.”

Charlie should know. After graduating from Staples High School in 1983, and then the University of Virginia, he’s worked on Broadway as a theater manager; in Hollywood for CBS and William Morris; in New York and San Francisco in advertising and publicity, and in Austin as COO of a software company.

Right now, he works remotely — as a “digital nomad” — in Central America for a Texas-based firm.

Charlie has also written about careers for Rolling Stone magazine. He had a weekly spot talking about jobs on CNN. HarperCollins and Random House published his books on how to get a job.

Charlie Drozdyk and friend.

He’s just published his 3rd. “Job Moron: Idiot-Proof Strategies for Getting Jobs That  Don’t Suck” offers advice to job-seekers from people who have actually gotten jobs, by doing things “differently and creatively.”

But you don’t only want to get a job. You’d like to move up! “Job Moron” has plenty of info on that too. (“You don’t have to show you can just do your job,” Charlie says. “You have to prove you can do the job above yours too.”)

He interviewed young professionals with “great jobs at great companies”: Geffen Records, the X-Games, the Whitney Museum, Chiat/Day, and top finance and software firms.

They talk about how to network (without losing your soul and integrity), land interviews, make cold calls, and create cover letters and resumes that get noticed.

They discuss what to say — and not say — in interviews. And how to write a thank-you letter that works.

Charlie weaves his own story in too. At UVa he majored in the infamous, often-mocked subject of history — and had, he says, “no contacts and no internships.”

It sounds easy. But Charlie warns: No one owes you a job. A job is possible because someone else worked hard at his or her job. They want to know how you can help them make more money.

Anyone in a position to offer you a job will do so only if they believe 2 things:

  1. You’re hungry for a job.
  2. You don’t think you’re owed one.

Charlie is a lively author. He writes plainly, clearly and bluntly. He uses salty language. He gets the reader attention.

After reading “Job Moron,” you’ll be ready to get anyone’s attention too.

And once you’ve got your foot in that job door, Charlie Drozdyk will make sure it never closes on you again.

(Click here for more information on “Job Moron.” “06880” readers can access the first 13 chapters for free.)