Category Archives: Economy

Winfield Street CEO: Job #1 Is Hiring Good Staff

We hear it all the time: The labor shortage is killing the economy.

News reports, social media, casual conversations — all repeat the same refrain. From the supply chain to the stockroom, the cook to the cash register, the only thing holding America back is that no one wants to work.

Breno Donatti begs to differ.

The owner of Winfield Street Coffee locations in Westport (Post Road West), Wilton, Stamford, Trumbull, Croton (NY) and Naples (FL) has 27 in-house employees.

Another dozen work as independent contractors (web and brand design, architect, bookkeeper, accountant, electrician, plumber, handyman, garden care, carpenter, PR).

Breno Donatti

The average wage of his 5 full-time office staff is $32 an hour. In Westport, where 6 people works as store and assistant manager, part-time chefs and part-time baristas, the average is $17.20 an hour.

The pay in his other locations generally ranges from $14 to $16.25 an hour. Some employees earn as much as $22 an hour.

Most employees earn between $1 and $4 an hour in tips. All employees are eligible for paid sick and personal days, and vacation time. Managers and assistant managers can qualify for monthly and quarterly bonuses.

Because of a shortage of qualified restaurant staff, Donatti says, employees can pick where they like to work. Wage in “not top of mind,” he says, though imporant.

“Employees are lookin for an uplifting workplace with good colleagues, good culture and flexibility.” At Winfield, he says, that means frequent meetings to discuss problems, scheduling staff events and parties, and allowing managers the flexibility to provide staff what they need to do their jobs.

Staff are also involved in meal donations and community events, giving them “a sense of purpose.”

Winfield Street’s Post Road West location.

“We have not had major problems with worker shortages, because we believe that prospecting candidates and training staff is an ongoing process,” says Donatti.

They usually hire by word of mouth. Those who come that way usually stay longer than those found via Craigslist or resumes.

Donatti says he is “blessed” with an “honest, hard-working and motivated” staff, who care about the company and their colleagues. He has begun exploring ways to make it employee-owned.

Meanwhile — undeterred by staff shortages — Winfield Street continues to grow. A new coffee shop kiosk will open at 86th Street and 2nd Avenue in New York; 2 other kiosks will follow in the city by February. A large store similar to the Stamford flagship is planned for Rye by spring. Those 4 outlets will require 18 more employees.

“Our staff is the most important part of our company,” Donatti says. “Obviously, customers bring us the revenue to hire everyone. But by having the right personnel, we ensure that every customer is fully cared for — and that improves the chance they’ll return.

“My job, as CEO, is to make sure that my staff is cared for.”

McAlinden: Housing Rally A Good Start; More Needed

Helen McAlinden is excited about yesterday’s housing rally on Jesup Green.

The event — co-sponsored by Homes with Hope, the Westport Housing Authority and Westport Department of Human Services — drew dozens of housing supporters, and a number of politicians.

McAlinden — executive director of Homes with Hopes — says:

“Their attendance and support shows us we have friends and advocates at the State Capitol. It was brilliant to see that!

“With Connecticut’s $300 million of American Rescue Plan Act funds unallocated at this time, our collective voices were heard. But this needs to continue, so that these funds are invested in affordable housing and support services to protect our most vulnerable residents.

Young attendees carried signs at yesterday’s rally. (Photo/Lauren Braver Schiller)

“We would like to thank First Selectman Jim Marpe, Elaine Daignault (Human Services director) and Carol Martin (Housing Authority director) for their partnership and leadership in hosting such a wonderful shindig in Westport.  They did a brilliant job highlighting the Fairfield County housing crisis.

“But our efforts are not over. Please continue your advocacy. Now, with this event fresh in people’s minds, is the time to continue to spread the word and consider doing a similar event in other communities.

“One woman’s story — which mirrored many others — brought the event into a real-life scenario which was appreciated by everyone. The town of Westport and Westport Housing Authority will be happy to lend their support to help produce a similar event in every community highlighting, how small, affluent towns can be part of the answer.”

Click below for a video of the event:

 

Roundup: Vaccines, Basso, Butterflies …

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The Connecticut Department of Public Health, Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference and many youth sports organizations are urging all athletes 12 years and older to get vaccinated against COVID.

It’s the best way, officials say, to ensure a healthy, safe and uninterrupted fall season. The organizations suggest that sports groups host and sponsor mobile or other vaccine clinics, to reach students.

They note one major reason to get a shot: people who have been vaccinated do not need to quarantine if exposed to a COVID case, if they are asymptomatic.

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La Plage — the great new restaurant at the Inn at Longshore — opens today. But — as noted in a recent 06880″ story — it’s dinner only for now, Wednesdays through Sundays.

The reason: staffing. Finding help — cooks, servers, dishwashers, bussers, front-of-the-house, you name it — is tough.

It’s a town-wide (and nationwide) problem. Basso is one of Westport’s most popular restaurants. This sign hangs near the outdoor tables, on Jesup Road:

(Photo/Dan Woog)

There’s no such thing as a free lunch. But there may be no lunch at any restaurants, if they can’t find enough help.

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Devil’s Den has reopened.

The popular 1,800-acre Weston preserve — The Nature Conservancy’s largest in Connecticut — closed in the spring of 2020, in the early days of the pandemic. It was overwhelmed with visitors, many of whom parked illegally, brought dogs or stayed past dark.

As of last Sunday, the woodlands, wetlands and rock ledges are open from sunrise to 5 p.m. Click here for more information. (Hat tip: Weston Today)

Devil’s Den

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Speaking of nature: Earthplace did it! They reached their $40,000 fundraising goal — and got a full matching grant for their Animal Hall.

Donations came from regular friends, new donors, neighbors and from afar. A matching grant of every dollar up to $20,000 was key too.

Earthplace officials thank the “amazing, generous and kind” community for its support. The animals join in too (see below!).

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Speaking still of nature: ButtARfly  is inelegantly named.

But it’s a great program, bringing butterflies from the Smithsonian’s Open Access collections to life on a computer screen. Users can learn about butterfly species, add them to a virtual shadow box, and release them into an augmented reality experience for desktop and mobile. There are even different sounds for each specimen.

The Department of Media Arts & Technology at New Mexico Highlands University helped develop the initiative — with the help of 1984 Staples High School graduate Lauren Addario, as audio advisor and content developer.

Click here to enjoy.

Monarch butterfly at Compo Beach. They’re everywhere — including the Smithsonian. (Photo/Jamie Walsh)

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Lotsa nature today. Our “Westport … Naturally” photo shows “2 bees in a bud.” It’s courtesy of Tracy Porosoff, from her garden near Compo Beach.

(Photo/Tracy Porosoff)

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The Y’s Men (and their wise spouses) meet every Tuesday during the summer at South Beach, for food, camaraderie and sunsets. Jon Fox organized the event several years ago.

Yesterday they added a bit of fundraising, for the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp. Peter Nathan solicited donations — and brought in over $1,300.

That’s one more feather in one of Westport’s premier volunteer organization’s cap!

Y’s Men (from left): Mike Guthman, Roy McKay, David Kalman (hot dog supplier), Peter Nathan, Jon Fox, Baxter Urist and Larry Lich. (Photo/Dorothy Fox)

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And finally … our musical interlude usually celebrates birthdays, anniversaries and upbeat events from years gone by. After all, there aren’t too many downer songs about bad things in history. (Okay — “Eve of Destruction.”)

But today is the 47th anniversary of the day 3 civil rights workers — Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney — were found dead in Mississippi. They had disappeared 43 days earlier.

So — at the risk of alienating all my friends from that state — I present Phil Ochs:

Tesla 3 Cop Car Earns Kudos

There were snickers in 2019, when the town announced it was buying a Tesla Model 3 for the Police Department.

You can stop laughing.

The vehicle — put in service in February 2020 — is being celebrated for “exceeding performance, cost savings and environmental benefits estimates.”

That’s not just hopeful hype. It’s the verdict of a study by the EV Club of CT.

The Westport Police Department’s Tesla 3.

The report says the Model 3 police cruiser recoups the purchase price premium, and saves money — even in the first year.

It adds:

• After 4 years the Tesla will have saved enough money to buy another one.
• Each EV avoids emission of over 23 tons of CO2 per year, and saves $8763 in
environmental and health costs.
• There is a $12,582 savings in fuel alone after 4 years, from using electricity to
power the vehicle.
• Reduced maintenance comes from regenerative braking (the engine slows the
car and recaptures some of the kinetic energy, replenishing the battery and
reducing wear on the friction brakes), as well as no spark plugs, transmission,
alternator, water pump, or catalytic converter. The Tesla does not require oil changes.
• Even during the winter months, the Tesla ran 2 patrol shifts without needing to be recharged. There were no issues related to charging and battery use.

The EV Club reports that there was a $15,300 differential in the purchase price of the Tesla versus a Ford Explorer, previously the the “workhorse of the fleet.” That was recouped in the first year due to reduced customization and lower operating costs.

Though Police Department would not receive the discounts applied to the initial vehicle, a second Tesla is still projected to recoup the price premium in one year due to lower customization, maintenance, and fuel costs.

For a full financial analysis, click here.

According to the EV Club’s report, there are non-financial benefits too.
“The car’s catlike alacrity enables an officer to quickly overtake a moving suspect’s vehicle, which reduces the risk to the driver (and) officer, as well as other vehicles and pedestrians.”

Police Chief Foti Koskinas says:

What initially attracted us to the Tesla was how it compared to our traditional fleet vehicles in terms of performance, 5-star crash ratings, and collision avoidance technology.

While the Police Department has been using plug-in hybrids for parking enforcement for several years, this was the first fully electric car to be used in active duty. We needed to confirm our estimates on things like mileage per charge and how the vehicle would stand up overall in the challenging environment of police work.

And of course, we were tracking expenses. The purchase price of the Tesla was higher than the Ford Explorer, but we hypothesized that we’d recoup that expense in lower fueling and maintenance costs for the Tesla.”

Charles Sampson of the WPD managed this project. He adds, “Feedback from the public has been overwhelmingly positive. We’ve have been contacted by at least 50 other police departments – from all over the world – with questions about our experience. I know many of them have gone on to purchase Teslas for their fleets.”

The Tesla 3 takes to the road.

 

Main Street: One Real Estate Firm’s View

They’re not the Trump Organization, the mammoth real estate company. They’re not Empire State Realty, which own the Empire State Building — and commercial real estate on Westport’s Main Street.

But Admiral Real Estate Services is no slouch. The commercial real estate company focuses on retail sites in the tri-state area. You’ve seen their signs on vacant storefronts around town.

If they have their way, you’ll see fewer in the future. Admiral is bullish on Westport.

The last couple of years have not been easy, notes president and CEO Jonathan Gordon.

Norwalk’s new SoNo Collection mall — “the newest and shiniest project out there,” Gordon admits — “sucked a lot of the energy out of downtown.”

COVID brutalized merchants and landlords. Downtown Westport — and similar markets like Darien, Greenwich, Rye and Scarsdale — saw shoppers flee to online.

But as the nation emerges from the pandemic, Gordon says, “retailers are returning our calls.”

Part of the reason, he believes, is “internet fatigue. Millennials want a more experiential shopping experience. Retailers see a need to be downtown.”

One empty storefront is among the most visible in all of downtwn.

“Downtown” draws more than Westporters, Gordon says. It’s a destination for many area residents. Within a 15-minute drive, Admiral’s website says, “the  population jumps to over 150,000 with an average income exceeding $170,000, resulting in total buying power for in-store retail goods (excluding food and drink) of $4 billion+.”

One thing that Westport has over some other affluent suburbs is that while residents leave in the summer for vacations (and vacation homes), they’re replaced by equally affluent summer residents. That’s attractive to Admiral — and the properties they represent.

Despite an upturn in commercial real estate activity, there are still a number of empty storefronts. For Admiral, that includes 2 properties at the Post Road/ Main Street intersection, and 4 others on the river side of Main Street (one is the long-vacant 2-story restaurant most recently occupied by Boca and Acqua).

Boca restaurant closed in 2018. The Main Street property has been empty ever since.

Admiral also represents 2 properties on Post Road East, near Balducci’s.

For retailers looking for a new location, Gordon says, Westport’s competition is “really Greenwich.” It’s a “formidable” location, with a “nice, long retail strip, close to New York City.”

So, he says diplomatically, he tries to sell both locations.

In terms of Westport, Gordon says, “we view Main Street as one entity. Our goal is to find retailers that help other retailers be successful.” La Fenice gelateria — an Admiral tenant — is one such place.

“People who get a gelato will go next door to shop,” Gordon notes. “If they come at night, they’ll go window shopping.”

The new Barnes & Noble — not an Admiral property — is another example of “exactly what downtown needs.”

27 Main Street is another Admiral property.

So how tough a sell is Westport?

“Everything is tough these days,” Gordon says. “We may drag people there by the scruffs of their neck. But we show them the free parking lots. We give them marketing materials, with specific breakdowns of population, income and consumer purchases. We help them assess the viability of a site. Seeing downtown is more powerful for them than anything.”

In the past, he notes, potential retailers have been “surprised at the disconnect between the number of vacant stores, and the potential.”

Coming out of COVID, he hopes, those numbers — and that disconnect — will diminish. In their place will be a new mix of retailers, and eager shoppers from far and wide.

Choose Westport!

Do you lead a startup? Run an established business? Need a satellite office for your larger organization?

Westport wants you!

Town officials, commercial developers and real estate agents have partnered to launch ChooseWestport.com. The “economic opportunity website” focuses on the benefits of opening a business here.

The site targets small businesses, entrepreneurs and other professionals in the tri-state region. It highlights the benefits of locating (or relocating) in Westport.

ChooseWestport includes sections on “Economic Vitality” (education, credit rating, taxes, transportation, income and wages, real estate); “What’s Possible” (lifestyle, commerce, quality of life, values and education), along with sections for retail, small businesses and “finance businesses” (Kitt Shapiro of the store WEST, Field Trip Snacks co-founders Matt Levey and Tom Donigan, and Saugatuck Financial’s Justin and Christy Charise all provide videos).

Screenshot from Choose Westport

The “Concierge” section promises that the “Westport Economic Opportunity Division” will provide assistance in opening a business, and “navigating the operations of town government.”

The Visual Brand — based in Westport — created the website, and will run a digital marketing campaign, including videos.

For more information on ChooseWestport — including joining the partnership — email town operations director Sara Harris: sharris@westportct.gov.

 

Helping Neighbors: Camp, Grad Celebration Donations Needed

For years, Westport’s Human Services Department has run 2 important spring collections. Community donations provide critical support to families needing financial assistance for summer camp programs, and the end-of-school-year celebrations that so many others take for granted.

For parents of kids, the pandemic has made the need even more urgent. Lost social and educational time — combined with fewer affordable structure activities, and adult stress — has driven financially insecure families into greater distress.

Childcare and summer enrichment programs — registered for without a second thought by a number of Westporters — are crucial for children in those circumstances.

After a rough year, summer activities are important.

 

Camps are in a bind too. After not opening last year, they’ve been unable to offer the same number of discounted tuitions as in the past.

Just as important — for 8th and 12th graders’ social well-being — is having appropriate clothing for graduation ceremonies. Cash and gift card donations help parents with those purchases. They may also hep families share a special meal, to recognize their children’s achievements.

Human Services director Elaine Daignault invites residents to contribute to the department’s Family to Family programs: “DHS Campership Fund” and/or “DHS Ceremonies and Celebrations Fund.”

No one wants to feel left out at graduation.

Every dollar counts. An average week of day camp in the area is $300.

Click here; under “Seasonal Program Name,” click the fund(s) you wish to contribute to. Checks can be sent to Human Services Department, 110 Myrtle Avenue, Westport, CT 06880 (indicate which fund on the memo line).

Questions? Email adaugelli@westportct.gov, or call Annette D’Augelli at 203-341-1050.

Remembering George Keane

George F. Keane — longtime Westporter, founder of the Common Fund, and a noted philanthropic investment strategist — died  peacefully on Thursday in Trumbull, where he had spent time convalescing from a long illness.

His son, Staples High School Class of 1971 graduate Brian Keane, writes:

My father was my north star. A young boy’s hero. A protector, the one who knew what to do. My Little League coach. My advisor (and my staunchest critic).

Though we had our battles from time to time, and we each had success in very different worlds, we never lost touch, nor did we ever lose the deep bond of love that we had for each other. In the end I served as his caretaker, along with other very able and loving people.

George F. Keane

He had a long, and remarkable life. He touched many other’s lives along the way. He gave people their starts, helped people in their time of need, and made his mark on the world. You couldn’t ask for much more out of life.

He came from modest means, a child of the Great Depression, growing up in Danbury. He would be the first in his family ever to graduate college. He would later serve on the college’s board.

Though we grew up in Westport, our family was middle class at best. However, my father would rise throughout his life to become a successful philanthropic investment strategist, founder of the Common Fund, now in its 50th year, employing hundreds of people, advising over 1,500 institutions, with $40 billion under management.

He was awarded 2 honorary doctorates, and the Fredrick D. Patterson Award for his 12 years of service as a director of the United Negro College Fund. He served on many prestigious boards, and worked with Research Affiliates of California to form a new index fund.

He battled the affliction of alcoholism as a younger man to attain 41 years of sobriety, and was an example to others.

He loved life too, and had lots of fun. He was a gifted singer, a well traveled tourist, a patron of the arts, a sports enthusiast. He lived well, ate well, loved well. He didn’t golf real well, but had fun at that too, as the world’s most generous scorekeeper.

A loving husband, father, grandfather and extended family man, he was a kind, intelligent, generous and very successful man, who helped out many people in his life, and leaves a long list of bereaved admirers.

For me though, he was simply Dad. I will always love him dearly for who he was, and always deeply appreciate what he did for me, and for the example that he set.

On May 20 my father passed peacefully, at 91, sitting in a chair in his assisted living apartment where he had been convalescing from a long illness. It was as though he were merely taking a nap.

Brian Keane

The night before we had dinner together, just the 2 of us. We went out on the patio, spent a few hours together, and he took the long walk back to his apartment in unwavering stride. After a lifetime of pursuing life with such tenacity and persistence, I never expected the Irish goodbye.

A Mass of Christian Burial will be celebrated on Wednesday (May 26, 10:30 a.m., St. Peter Church, 104 Main Street, Danbury). George F. Keane will be laid to rest alongside his older brother, James R. Keane, and his parents Alexander Keane and Anna Krebs Keane in St Peter’s Cemetery in Danbury immediately following the service.

There will be a celebration of life event at some point later in the year.

In lieu of flowers, donations can be made in George F. Keane’s name to the American Cancer Society or The United Negro College Fund.

Westport Sets New Mill Rate

Westport has a new mill rate. Michael Calise reports:

The rate for the 2021-22 tax year was set by the Board of Finance at 18.07 mills.

Each year a new mill rate is set, based on 2 major factors: our Grand List (the total assessed value of all taxable properties in Westport, which is finalized by our tax assessor) and our annual budget (finalized by the RTM).

The mill rate is the multiplier of our Grand List, which produces the net revenue required to run our town after all other revenue streams and anticipated shortfalls (such as an allowance for unanticipated expenses) are factored into the mix.

Since the 2015 reassessment, our annual Grand List increase due to new construction and property improvements, as well as strict budget controls, have allowed our mill rate to remain constant — in fact, actually reduced for the tax year we are currently in.

This year a third and unexpected factor came into play: the 2020 reassessment determined a greater than 5.4% reduction in our Grand List.

Our final annual budget, as approved by the RTM, was set at a 2.6% increase. When factored against the 2020 Grand List (as described above), this necessitated the new mill rate of 18.07 mills. It is up from the current 16.71 mill rate. Individual property taxes for the ensuing year will be calculated based on the new assessment.

2020-21 budget:                   $212,772,828

2021-22 budget:                   $218,479,214   (+2.6%)

2019 Grand List:                  $11,445,273,580

2020 Grand List:                 $10,830,370,714 (-5.4%)

RTM Passes Town, Education Budgets

Westport has a budget for the next fiscal year.

Actually, we have 2. This week, the Representative Town Meeting approved both the town and education budgets.

Here is Peter Gold’s report on the May 3 and 4 RTM meetings. He is an RTM member and a director of the Westport Transit District writing for himself, and not in an official capacity.

At back-to-back meetings this week, the RTM approved a total town and education budget of $220,814,210. That’s approximately 2.65% more than the current year.

On May 3 the RTM passed the town budget for the fiscal year ending June 20, 2022 of $77,103,992 — a 2.2% increase over the current year.

It also approved several smaller budgets for Earthplace, Westport Library, Westport-Weston Health District, Westport Transit District, railroad parking and Wakeman Town Farm, for a grand total of $85,509,447. That is a 2.59% increase over the current year.

Over 80% of the town’s budget goes to 4 areas: public safety (30%), funding for pensions and other post-employment benefits such as retiree health care (27%), public works (15%) and parks and recreation (9%).

All budgets except for Westport Transit District were unchanged from the budget recommended by the Board of Finance, and all passed unanimously.

In a 32-1 vote, the RTM restored $157,500 cut by the Board of Finance from the Westport Transit District‘s budget for its Wheels2U shuttle service introduced last October. The RTM took note of the letters it received from over 100 individuals and organizations in support of restoring the funds. RTM members also felt the pandemic made it difficult to fairly evaluate the Wheels2U service, and that it should be given a chance to prove itself as life returns closer to normal.

On May 4 the RTM approved the Board of Finance’s recommended budget for the Board of Education. The $135,304,763 approved by the RTM, while $1,347,716 less than the Board of Ed’s original request, is still a 3% increase over the current year.

The Board of Education chose not to ask the RTM to restore funds cut by the Board of Finance. Instead, it managed to make up the amount through increased state aid, and funds received under emergency grant programs like the Coronavirus Relief Fund and the American Rescue Plan.

As in prior years, the overwhelming majority of the Board of Education budget —81% — goes to salaries and benefits.

Prior to voting on the budget, the RTM was briefed by Board of Finance chair Brian Stern on the town’s financial condition. Despite unexpected expenses due to COVID and Hurricane Isaias, the town is projected to finish the fiscal year on June 30 within 1% of the amount budgeted last May. This amount — which can be covered by the town’s reserves — is due to hard work by town employees, and financial aid from state and federal governments.