Category Archives: Economy

Local Zoning Makes National News

ProPublica — the non-profit investigative news outlet — has published an in-depth look at the interrelated issues of affordable housing and zoning laws in Connecticut.

Much of the piece — produced in collaboration with the Connecticut Mirror, and headlined “How Some of America’s Richest Towns Fight Affordable Housing” — focuses on Westport.

It does not paint a pretty picture.

The story begins with the example of the new houses being built on the former Daybreak property, near Merritt Parkway Exit 42:

A dirt field overgrown with weeds is the incongruous entrance to one of America’s wealthiest towns, a short walk to a Rodeo Drive-like stretch replete with upscale stores such as Tiffany & Co.

But this sad patch of land is also the physical manifestation of a broader turf war over what type of housing — and ultimately what type of people — to allow within Westport’s borders.

After a lengthy description of the zoning battles that followed — without mentioning traffic and related issues — the piece notes:

Welcome to Connecticut, a state with more separate — and unequal — housing than nearly everywhere else in the country.

This separation is by design.

In fact, the Daybreak project was never about affordable housing. It was planned as 55-and-over housing.

Construction fence at the Daybreak development.

It talks about Westport’s “affordable housing” stock (as defined by state regulation 8-30g), without mentioning that the statute does not include dwellings built before 1990.

In Westport — where gated residences overlook the Long Island Sound and voters solidly backed Democrats in the most recent state and presidential elections — private developers have been allowed to open just 65 affordable housing units over the last three decades. Public housing rentals operated by the local housing authority have also grown at a snail’s pace, with 71 new units opening in this charming small town of 10,400 homes.

The story implies several times that racism is a factor in local housing decisions.

“I think the vestiges of our racial past are far from over,” said former Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who left office in early 2019 after eight years and regularly butted heads with General Assembly members who wanted local officials to have even more authority over housing decisions. For minority residents striving for safe and affordable housing, the state has “denied the opportunity that we allowed white middle-class aspirants to access,” Malloy said.

It includes quotes from Planning & Zoning commissioners and 1st Selectman Jim Marpe — though not always with context.

There are descriptions of zoning battles over developments like 1177 Post Road East (which is already built and occupied) and the Hiawatha Lane project (which has been battled over for years).

An artist’s rendering of the 4-story rental property at 1177 Post Road East.

Particularly striking: A photo of the Community Gardens, next to Long Lots Elementary School. The caption implies that the town bought the land and turned it into gardens simply to prevent construction of “multifamily housing for low-income residents in (that) heavily residential single-family section of Westport.”

There’s much more. It’s a long piece — and it will get people talking.

Click here to read the entire story.

“Downtown Future” Forum Set

It’s a hot Westport topic, right alongside the future of Coleytown Middle School, bathrooms at South Beach, and ospreys.

“What’s up with downtown?” we ask.

We jabber about Main Street vacancies, online shopping, high rents and the new Norwalk mall.

We pine for the old mom-and-pop shops — or snort that those days are long gone.

Those were the days. Right?

The Coalition for Westport discusses that too. Members talk about attracting retailers like grocery and hardware stores, book shops and pharmacies; about 2nd-floor apartments; about a movie theater, cafes and other attractions that draw nighttime crowds.

To get a discussion going, the Coalition is sponsoring a forum. “Let’s Talk About Downtown and the  Future of Main Street” is set for next Monday (May 13, 7 p.m., 24 Elm Street — in Bedford Square, next to HSBC Bank 56 Church Lane, the Visual Brand office).

Panelists include Joseph McGee, Business Council of Fairfield County vice president for public policy and programs; David Kooris, deputy commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development, and a representative of the downtown business community.

All Westporters — and stakeholders — are invited.

The event is free.

So is the parking.

Arete: The Post Road/Madagascar Connection

Madagascar is one of the poorest countries on earth.

The main economic resources of the beautiful Indian Ocean island, 250 miles off the coast of Africa, are tourism, agriculture, textiles and mining.

Textiles are the most important when it comes to creating much needed jobs quickly. That’s Eugene Havemann’s business. And — from his new base in Westport — the South Africa native is doing all he can to give the nation a boost.

Eugene Havemann inside Arete, his new store at 123 Post Road East.

Years ago at university in Pietermaritzburg, Havemann made money by selling t-shirts on campus. That led to a career in the garment industry. He started a company, and has helped build one of the largest factories in Madagascar.

Three years ago, he focused on the US market. As that business grew, he realized he needed a physical presence here.

He and his wife Debby researched the best places to live. They looked at the West Coast, Colorado, Texas and Georgia.

But Havemann realized it was important to be near New York. With 4 kids though, they did not want to live in the city.

The Princeton area was beautiful. Realtor Janice McGrath took them all over New York state and Connecticut.

When they came to Westport, Eugene and Debby knew they’d found the right spot.

Compo Beach, Longshore and the Saugatuck River were all attractive. But the schools really amazed them. They were particularly intrigued that Staples High sponsors teams in rugby, water polo and field hockey — all sports their children were familiar with from South Africa.

“This is the place,” the couple decided.

In addition to the core business (www.madagarments.com) and his online www.arete-retail.com, the Havemanns opened a brick-and-mortar shop here. Westport, they believe, complements their brand identities.

Inside Arete.

Arete — the Greek word means “excellence of any kind” — just popped up at 123 Post Road East, across from Bank of America. It’s filled with intriguing baskets, bags, smock dresses and hats. Towels, home decor and leather belts will be added soon. Most bags and hats are made of raffia, a strong, malleable and high-end palm tree leaf indigenous to Madagascar.

In that country of 26 millions, Havemann says, only 550,000 people are formally employed. Arete provides a platform for women artisans to market their goods in the US.

Every basket sold provides enough money for a woman to feed a family of 6 for a week.

Response to the Westport store has been excellent. At least half of the people who walk in buy something. Most don’t even know that their purchase supports people halfway around the globe.

The Havemanns have only been here a few months. But they’re building a business. The schools are wonderful. The family has met other South Africans in town, and people from all over the world.

Plus, Havemann — who has lived in two gorgeous countries — says of his new home town, “Westport is one of the most beautiful places on earth.”

Ray Dalio’s Dollars

Ray Dalio is the highest-earning hedge fund manager on the planet.

Institutional Investor estimates that the founder of Westport-based Bridgewater Associates — often called the biggest hedge fund in the world — earned $2 billion last year.

That’s close to double his 2017 take of $1.3 billion — good for only 4th on the hedge fund manager earning list.

Let’s hope he shops locally.

(For the full New York Times story, click here. Hat tip: Gil Ghitelman.)

Ray Dalio, at Bridgewater’s Weston Road office.

Post Road Real Estate: 2 Years Later

Alert “06880” reader Bob Weingarten writes:

In June 2017 I drove along the Post Road from the eastern border, near Bulkley Avenue, to the western end, near Whole Foods. I counted the number of buildings — including individual offices or retail space — for lease or sale. I spotted 50 signs, just on the Post Road.

These figures were the basis of an “06880” story: “This Space For Lease.” It drew 57 comments.

Because we have been told that the economy is “so strong,” I decided to drive the same route, and again count how many buildings or individual offices were for lease or sale.

This time I spotted over 65 for lease or sale. That does not include all the new residential construction on the Post Road, such as the 94 apartments at 1177 Post Road East, or the 2 mixed-use buildings with a total of 28 apartments (some in townhouses) at 793 Post Road East.

The former A&J’s Market on Post Road East is available …

While counting, I realized that this mix of for lease or sale buildings and offices was extremely different from 2017.

This time I spotted 2 bank buildings, a gas station, a farm market, a classic car dealer, and several large commercial buildings and retail outlets for lease or sale.

… as is the old Mobil Self-Serve near Barnes & Noble …

During the past 2 years many of the former for-lease buildings have been occupied. But it appears to me there is a larger inventory of space available now, with larger properties.

I have my own opinion as to the reasons — for example, higher rental rates or the economy — but other readers may have better knowledge.

… and the nearby bank, at the corner of Morningside Drive.

The 2017 Post Road story noted that there were “10 or so others on Main Street.” I just drove from the Post Road to Avery Place on Main Street, and counted 10 buildings or retail spaces for lease.

From Avery Place to Kings Highway North I saw an additional 3 more “for lease signs.”

The same questions posed in 2017 are still relevant today: “Is something wrong with Westport’s commercial real estate market? If so, are there solutions?”

Click “Comments” below to offer answers.

Or more questions.

[OPINION] Transit Directors Seek Budget Restoration

Last month, the Board of Finance cut the Westport Transit District’s funding request. The WTD is preparing a restoration request for the Representative Town Meeting. Today, directors Marty Fox and Patsy Cimarosa lay out their case.

The Westport Transit District provides bus service with minibuses operated under subcontract with the Norwalk Transit District. It operates 7 commuter shuttle routes to and from the Saugatuck and Greens Farms rail stations, and provides daytime Door-to-Door transportation for seniors and residents with disabilities. (Information on these services, including routes, schedules and fares, can be found here: WestportTransit.org.)

Westport Transit budgeted about $575,000 in state funding for the commuter shuttles for the 2020 fiscal year starting in July. We requested an additional $238,000 from Westport to cover the remaining cost of the commuter shuttles not covered by fares.

A Westport Transit District shuttle rider.

On March 12, Westport’s Board of Finance cut the Town’s financial support for the commuter shuttles by $115,000, approximately half the Westport support necessary to operate the current shuttle routes for the coming fiscal year. (No changes were made to the Door-to-Door component of the WTD’s FY20 budget.)  The Board of Finance affirmed its decision to cut the commuter shuttle funding at its April 3 meeting.

Consistent with the provisions of the Town Charter, the Westport Transit District will ask the Representative Town Meeting to restore the $115,000 in town funding at the RTM’s May 6 meeting. Should the cut not be restored, it’s likely that most or all of the town’s commuter shuttle service would be eliminated by the end of the calendar year – and Westport would lose over $500,000 of state support for the commuter shuttles. (Door-to-Door services will not be affected.)

The Transit District’s April 3rd presentation to the Board of Finance sets out why we asked the Board of Finance to restore the $115,000 it cut from Westport’s funding of the commuter shuttles.

These are also the basis for the WTD’s request to the RTM to restore the full town funding of this community service. Among the reasons is the strong support for fully funding the commuter shuttles expressed by Westport residents in the 2018 townwide survey on Westport’s bus services, completed by 1,700 residents.

More detailed information about the Westport Transit District’s operations, current initiatives, and findings of the 2018 Town-wide survey can be found in the WTD’s March 12 presentation to the Board of Finance.

The RTM Transit Committee meets this Wednesday (April 24). The RTM Finance Committee meeting — when the budget restoration request will be discussed — is this Thursday (April 25).

Westport residents can make their opinion about the future of the commuter shuttles known by contacting RTM members at RTMMailingList@westportct.gov, and speaking at the May 6 RTM meeting.

 

Financial Reality Comes To Staples

A few years ago this month, I got a panicked text from a soccer player I’d coached at Staples High School.

He graduated from college the previous year. Now — less than a year into his first job — he said, “I owe thousands of dollars to the IRS. How come no one ever taught me about taxes at Staples??!!”

Sarah White

The chances I’ll receive a similar text are a lot lower today. Two-thirds of seniors take Personal Finance — a math department elective taught lovingly but toughly by Stacey Delmhorst, Jen Giudice, Lenny Klein and Sarah White.

And a couple of weeks ago, every senior took part in Staples’ first-ever Financial Reality Fair. They gave it high marks.

The event was part of a larger 4-hour “Real World” event. Students learned about substance abuse, sexual assault and reproductive health.

But the money shot involved money.

The idea came from the classes’ regular visits to Financial Reality Fairs at other schools. White and Klein asked each other, Why not do one at Staples?

White took the lead. Principal James D’Amico and the school’s Collaborative Team gave their blessings. But making it a reality took a ton of work.

Connecticut’s Credit Unions were the sponsors. They provided the curriculum, materials and a number of experts.

The Staples PTA provided a $4,000 Wrecker Mini-Grant. They also put out a call for (financially literate) volunteers. The response was tremendous — including members of Westport’s Board of Finance and Education. Students who had previously been to a Financial Reality Fair also volunteered.

Staples parent Margie Adler and senior Vaughan Picirillo-Sealey: volunteers at the Financial Reality Fair.

Students began the day by choosing a career. They could pick anything — business executive, doctor, lawyer, actor, financial analyst, pilot, military member, writer, teacher, whatever.

They were then given the starting salary (in Connecticut) for that job. Each student was also saddled with student loan debt. The amount owed depended on the years of education required for that profession. The longer they were in school, the higher their debt.

They were also assigned — randomly — a credit score.

Tables in the gym were marked with various real-life expenditures: Housing, Transportation, Food, Clothing.

Wait — food costs money?!

Those were mandatory. Others were optional: Nightlife, Fitness & Gym, Hair/Nails/Spa, Cell Phone, Cable/Internet, Pets, Travel.

By themselves, or — if they wished — with a “roommate,” students visited tables. There were many options. How often would they eat out? Did they want basic cable, or the platinum package? What kind of vacations would they take?

Staples seniors Ben Schwartz and Lefty Pendarakis discuss options with Financial Reality Fair volunteers.

They could choose one-off expenses too, like buying an Xbox. If they wanted to buy a car, fine — but they had to take out a credit union loan. (Hey, they were the sponsors!)

There was also a mandatory “wheel” to spin. It saddled them with unexpected costs (lost cell phone, broken leg) or extra funds (overtime pay, birthday gift).

The wheel of fortune. Or misfortune.

Each choice carried consequences. As the students quickly learned, each consequence led to others.

When they were done with their budget, each teenager met with a volunteer financial counselor. They had undergone training, to ask questions like, “Why did you make that decision?”

The final step: meeting with a financial counselor.

It was a very engaging — and educational — day.

The students were surprised at the effect of student debt on their budgets. They were even more amazed at the impact of credit scores.

“I had to pay more than my friend for the same truck!” one boy said, astonished.

Feedback was excellent. The soon-to-go-off-to-college-and-then-become-adults began seeing finances not as something provided by the Bank of Mom and Dad, but as actual living, changing realities.

It was a reality check for some. A wake-up call for others.

And for one — well, who knows?

“I realize I’m not ready for life,” the student said.

But he or she is a lot more ready than that former soccer player who texted me — panic-stricken — after his first encounter with the IRS.

Behind Bridgewater

Bridgewater Associates is notoriously security-conscious.

But last night, “60 Minutes” profiled the Westport-based hedge fund — by some accounts, the world’s largest.

Bill Whitaker’s story focused on founder Ray Dalio. It offered glimpses of the Weston Road headquarters — including not only shots of the exterior, but the seldom-seen interior.

Ray Dalio, at Bridgewater’s Weston Road office.

Cameras even recorded analysts in action, and a staff meeting.

Analysts in action …

Bridgewater has a reputation as a secretive place to work — almost a cult. Nearly every meeting is taped, for later analysis.

In his “60 Minutes Overtime” segment, Whitaker says, “I expected it to be a place where everyone was almost afraid of their own shadow. I didn’t see that at all.”

Click here for the full “60 Minutes” story. Click here for “60 Minutes Overtime.”

… and Bill Whitaker, during a staff meeting.

After 73 Years, Torno Hardware To Close

In 1946, Staples High School woodworking teacher Bill Torno looked around. A year after World War II ended, he predicted there would be a housing boom in Westport.

He opened a lumber yard and hardware store on the Post Road. He was right. Both thrived.

Bill Torno (left), supervising a Staples High School woodworking class in 1947. He continued to teach after opening his businesses. In the center rear is Staples principal Douglas Young.

In 1970, Torno sold the businesses to Bob Kelly. He had a tough time. Three years later, he too sold — to another, completely different Bob Kelly.

This Bob Kelly had quite a resume. After being seriously wounded in Vietnam, he earned a Ph.D. in economics.

An internship with the President’s Council of Economic Advisers turned into a 2 1/2-year stint in the Nixon White House. Kelly moved on to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, working for Secretary George Romney.

“Then came this Watergate thing,” Kelly says. “The government just sort of stopped.”

One day, he saw an ad in the Wall Street Journal. A bankrupt lumberyard was for sale, in a “seacoast town.”

“I had a vision of horse-drawn carriages and 3-masted ships,” Kelly laughs.

That wasn’t Westport. But Torno Lumber and Hardware was a great fit.

Bob Kelly

A few years after buying the businesses, Kelly was asked to join the Fairfield University faculty. He taught economics for 30 years — while running his stores.

The college scheduled all his classes in the morning. Kelly spent afternoons at Torno. “They did fine without me here,” he says.

He retired from teaching 10 years ago. It was the depths of the financial crisis. Torno was hit hard.

“I never wanted to run a big company,” Kelly says. “But we got whacked. There were big chances in our industry.”

Small stores like his always had a price disadvantage. But if Torno was within 10% of bigger places, he’d always done fine.

Almost overnight, that model no longer worked.

“To be an independent now, you have to be very big,” Kelly says. “Big companies buy better. Now, companies we’ve dealt with for 50 years don’t want to deal with us.”

Torno Lumber

So — 46 years after he bought Torno Lumber and Hardware, and 73 years after Bill Torno set up shop — the businesses will have their 4th owner.

The buyer is Interstate Lumber. Shelly Kahn — president of the Greenwich-based firm — was raised in Westport.

“He’s a very good guy,” Kelly notes. “They’ve got several lumberyards, and a distribution center. They were one of the guys eating our lunch. This will be very good for Westport. I have no doubt Shelly will do a better job than I did.”

But only on the lumber front. Kahn plans to replace the hardware store with a showroom.

Torno Hardware. Bob Kelly moved the hardware store from the lumberyard to a standalone location several doors down around 1990.

Of course, the Torno name will go. Interstate Lumber is the new name.

Kelly has 120 days to sell his inventory “and get my butt out.”

“I’m 78 years old,” he says. “I’m a reader. I like to exercise. I like being in the woods. My favorite tools are a chainsaw and lopping shears. I’ll confront and attack nature.”

He made the move with no regrets. He has many great memories.

“I made the right choice to here,” he says. “It’s been a wonderful time. I’m very, very happy I did what I did.”

For nearly 3/4 of a century, Westport has been very, very happy with what Bill Torno — and Bob Kelly — did too.

Cliff Robinson Revives Revo

If you were a certain age in the late 1980s, you knew how cool Revos were.

Created with technology first developed by NASA — as solar protection for satellites — the stylish sunglasses quickly became hot. The polarized lenses were innovative. And they looked really sharp.

But after a decade or so, the sun set on Revo. The independent company was gobbled up — first by Ray-Ban, then Luxottica.

The glasses became one small brand in a large portfolio. Revos were still around. But, Cliff Robinson says, “they needed some TLC.”

He should know. B. Robinson – his family’s 93-year-old business — designs, manufactures, sells and distributes high-quality designer brand eyewear.

Cliff Robinson had grown up in New York City. He lived in Soho, and jokes, “I never thought I’d live above 14th Street.”

But while visiting friends in Scarsdale — with their 3rd child on the way — he and his wife said, on a whim, “Let’s look at houses!” That day, they put a bid on one.

The town was not a great fit though. They knew of Westport, and liked it. But it seemed too far for his daily New York commute.

A bit over 3 years ago, Robinson and his wife visited a friend from his Brown University days, now living in Westport. They decided to move here — and that he’d telecommute.

Robinson crossed paths here with Bill Sweedler. A few years ago his firm — Sequential Brands — bought Revo from Luxottica. Last year, B. Robinson bought out Sequential.

So now, Cliff Robinson says, “this great American heritage brand is being brought back.” And he’s the one leading the re-brand.

The other day, the website was relaunched.

The timing is auspicious. This is the 50th anniversary of the first men walking on the moon. Apollo 12 astronaut Pete Conrad — the 3rd man there — was Revo’s first ad representative. The current ad campaign reprises the brand’s late-’80s marketing.

Ahead, Robinson says, is “more TLC”: marketing, PR, perhaps pop-up stores in New York, the Hamptons — and Westport.

“Plenty of people here remember Revo,” Robinson say. “It was part of their lives. We’re making it relevant again.”