Tag Archives: Economy

Uptick Time?

For every sign the economy is still sagging — the New York Times reports that an uptick in vasectomies means families are hesitant to grow (or else men want snippage before their insurance runs out) — another says hard times may be easing.

Take bread and cake sales.

A Westport bakery owner says that until 3 weeks ago, business was off 15 percent from last year.  That’s not as bad as many stores, he knows, but it’s still a substantial downturn.

Lately though, he’s noticed an increase.  And Passover and Easter orders were even higher than last year.

He’s not sure the upturn will last.  Interestingly too, if this week’s business is off, it might be a positive sign.

This is school vacation.  Strong sales may mean more people are staying home — bad.  If sales fall, perhaps they’re away — that’s good.

So in a perverse way, let’s hope business tanks this week.  And then rebounds spectacularly on Monday.

In Good Times And Bad

I know we live in perilous times.  I understand the reasoning behind demands for wage freezes for town employees — the police officers, firefighters, public works employees, secretaries and teachers who make Westport “Westport.”

To help out, I am willing to forgo the contractually agreed-upon increase in my Staples coaching salary this year.

But I also wonder why, when times are flush — as they were not long ago — I did not hear similar requests to reopen contracts, and give something extra back to these same folks.

The door swings both ways.

Real Estate Roulette

The word on the treadmill is that New York Sports Club may leave Compo Shopping Center.

An employee answering the phone three days ago denied the rumor.  The Norwalk location closed March 31, she said, but Westport will remain open.  She took my name and number, and said the general manager would call back.   I’m still waiting.

Chip Stephens — the ear-to-the-ground, eyes-wide-open longtime Westporter who may mount a first selectman run — heard the fitness club news, and let his imagination run wild.

With so many businesses closing, he says, what would happen if real estate owners panicked and agreed to long-term leases at reasonable rates?  Perhaps, Chip wonders…

Food  Fair could return to its former site — the one currently occupied by New York Sports Club…

The Magees might reopen  Bridge Market, with basic home-and-beach grocery needs and a sub-$5 sub…

The Purcells would resurrect their bar, complete with shuffle hockey and pool tables in the strip mall across from Barker’s — er, Super Stop & Shop…

The Crest Drive-In might reappear at Derma Clinic, just a few yards behind its original, legendary spot at the Playhouse Square entrance.

I built on Chip’s list.  Selective Eye could return where Katzenberg Kafe just klosed.  Sport Mart might live again in its first home, Sconset Square (back in the day it was “Sherwood Square”).  And the Pepper Mill could revert to its long-ago role:  a Greyhound bus stop.

Take it from here, “06880” readers.  If you could reincarnate your favorite place — at a currently closed site — what would it be?

Bike Shop Blues

It’s hard to imagine a business better suited to today’s save-money, save-the-earth ethos than a bike shop.  Its product is relatively inexpensive, easily maintained, environmentally vital, and it appeals to all ages.

So why — with prime biking season near — did Westport Bicycles go out of business?

The store — despite its broad selection, knowledgeable staff and superb service — is no more.  Not long ago it hummed; now it’s just another empty storefront, not far from similarly shuttered Shaw’s, Totally Kool — and Curran Cadillac.

First a car dealer; now a bike shop.  Soon we won’t have any place to buy wheels to get to the stores that are not open, anyway.

Bye-Bye Balducci’s

Balducci’s is closing.

Wait, wait — before you get all verklempt about your butternut squash and goat cheese ravioli, Bilinski chicken sausages and Caribbean pumpkin black bean soup, listen:  It’s the two stores in Manhattan, and one each in Ridgefield and Washington, D.C., that will soon sell their last green crushed olive spreads.  The Westport location — along with Greenwich, Scarsdale, Bethesda (MD), and McLean and Alexandria (VA) — escaped the cutting knife.

Jennifer Barton, Balducci’s director of marketing, did not mince words.  “The Westport store will remain open,” she said soothingly when I called a few minutes ago.  “That store will not close.  No, no.  There’s no talk of that.  Not at all.  We are in the process of reorganizing our business and closing underperforming stores” — she sounded so disappointed at their failure to meet Balduccian standards — “but those six other stores are doing fine.”

Jennifer was on a PR roll.  “We look forward to making an exciting announcement about our remaining stores in the coming weeks!” she chirped.

Wow — an exciting announcement about the Westport Balducci’s!  I could barely contain myself.  Perhaps, I prodded, she could give me a teeny hint?

“No, I’m sorry, I can’t,” she said corporately.  “But it will be a very exciting announcement, in the coming weeks.”

To celebrate, I’m heading out right now.  I’m thinking a tin of Royal Osetra (Acipenser Gueldenstaedti) Kazakhstan caviar would be perfect.

balduccis

Lending A Westport Hand

As a mother, Krista Bradford heard her daughter’s regular updates about friends’ parents who lost jobs.

As a Westporter, Krista realized our town is better equipped than most to deal with an economic nosedive.  Few places have as many residents still able to make well-placed calls that rocket an out-of-work neighbor’s resume to the top of the pile, or pry open doors for an interview.

And as a self-described “idealistic, tilt-at-windmills former investigative reporter,” Krista wanted to put her energy and talent to use.

The result:  Westporters Helping Westporters, an innovative online group that does exactly what its long, inelegant name promises.

Existing primarily as a Facebook group, Westporters Helping Westporters links job-seekers with job-offerers (or at least job-connecters).  In just a couple of weeks it has already facilitated a CFO opening, and opportunities at consumer products and risk management companies.

“I started it, but it’s really owned by everyone in town,” Krista says.  “I see this as a gathering place for lots of different efforts involving the economy.  People can report observations, make suggestions, rant, soothe, and help other people land on their feet.”

Already, Krista has heard from a few “desperate” people.  One man thanked the group for being there in his “darkest hour.”  It meant everything, he said, to know that people cared.

The online element is important.  Though people need help now, they may feel awkward meeting in groups.  However, Krista hopes warmer weather will bring offline gatherings, perhaps at the beach.

In California, where she grew up, “everyone shared their personal problems.  My experience in Westport is that people don’t want to share that they’re hurting.  But because our group includes people who can help, maybe there’s less of a stigma.  It’s all about getting to know each other, and share connections.”

(For more information, search for the Westporters Helping Westporters group on Facebook, or call Krista at 203-227-8615.)

Smooth Sailing

Three people have mentioned it in the past 2 days, so it’s worth passing along:

One side effect of the economic downturn is severely reduced traffic on I-95 and the Merritt.  Morning or afternoon rush hour; northbound or southbound — it’s like a sleepy Sunday morning.

Be careful what you wish for.

Retail Space Available

Do not read this if you are a commercial real estate owner.  Or if you are prone to depression.

Especially do not read this if you are a commercial real estate owner prone to depression.

A friend recently said there were 26 vacant storefronts in downtown Westport.  Despite the economy, I thought that was high.  I decided to see for myself.

The good news is:  He’s wrong.  The bad news is:  He’s not off by much.

“Downtown” is an amorphous concept, but if you consider it as Main Street and environs, here’s what I found.

Across the Post Road Bridge, near Riverside Avenue, both Little Tibet and The Stuart Collection have closed.  There is a “retail/restaurant” available sign near the Inn at National Hall, while in the other direction King’s Texaco has serviced its last vehicle.

blog-real-estate-32

A “Prime Retail” sign sits in the window of the old library (now HSBC Bank).  Katzenberg Kafe on Main Street is gone; so is the spot next to Ann Taylor and, just past always-thriving Westport Pizzeria, both the old Soup’s On and the former Clementine.

The entire odd 4-story building at 125 Main Street — a vertical mall erected after a furniture store fire 30 years ago, and which never took hold in horizontal Westport — is completely closed.

Swezey’s Jewelers — site of the best Christmas window in town — is long gone.  Behind Talbot’s on Parker Harding Plaza, a sign advertises “Space Available.”  A similar sign hangs in front of Cocoa Michelle (though that upscale coffee/chocolate shop thrives).

Over in Sconset Square, we’re down both a jewelry store and a cabinet/countertop maker.

The storefront next to La Villa Restaurant is vacant; across from the post office, Sang’s Tailoring is shut.  A few steps west, Beautiful Faces is empty.  Particularly sad is the old Town Hall, the handsome stone building next to Restoration Hardware.  A bank — actually, a few banks — used to operate there.  Now the only sign of life is  a “Welcome to Westport” banner out front.

blog-real-estate-11

The rest of town fares no better.  In Playhouse Square, Derma Clinic has given its final facial.  Heading east, Totally Kool is totally closed.  Across the street, tumbleweeds blow across the empty asphalt of both Curran Cadillac and Shaw’s — plus nearby Everything Personalized, the Kodak photo place, and a third store I can’t even recall.

There is one vacancy in the Calise’s strip mall, another where Gallerie Je Reviens used to be.  Carvel will never close, but the business next to the Great American Stamp Store behind it did.

Just past Bertucci’s, Sports Collectables and another store could not make it.  Retail space is available in the Crate & Barrel shopping center, and where Green’s Farms Variety used to be.

Pane Vino restaurant closed recently; the old Pepper Mill property remains undeveloped.  Across from Super Stop & Shop, an empty storefront snoozes next to Sleepy’s.

Circling back toward downtown, through Saugatuck, Conte’s restaurant is vacant.  So is part of Bridge Square, the poster shop on Riverside Avenue, a store across from the railroad station, and a large space next to the AAA.

What a list — talk about a buzzkill.  So, to avoid starting off your week on a down note, consider a few signs of life:

Crumbs Bakery will soon dispense scrumptious cupcakes (for dessert after dinner at nearby Matsu Sushi?).  Joe Arcudi’s square pizza returns to its old stomping ground.  A flotation therapy spa opens in May downtown.

Or take an even broader view:  With all that empty space, now’s the perfect time to make your move.

blog-real-estate-21

Walking The Walk

Two days ago, an “06880” reader suggested lowering the driving age to 14.

Here’s another thought:  Make ’em walk.

It’s not my idea.  I stole it from the New York Times, which reported on a town in Italy that eliminated most school buses and parent drivers.  Instead, paid staff members and parent volunteers lead lines of walking students to school — “Pied Piper-style, stopping here and there as their flock expands.”

The town’s “piedibuses” (the Italian sounds better  than “foot buses”) have saved more than 100,000 miles of car travel, and prevented tons of greenhouses gases from entering the air.

Here in the U.S. a few places — Marin County and Boulder, go figure — have introduced modest “walking-bus programs,” but the concept is foreign to most of us.

Westport — home of the first plastic bag ordinance east of the Mississippi — would seem to be a perfect place to try.  We could save gas, help the environment, unjam roads, amortize our sidewalks, promote fitness, give students more time to socialize, give parents more time to themselves, and (the big one) cut some buses out of our education budget.

Walking to school might lighten backpacks too.  Kids today haul all their earthly possessions everywhere — more academic, less migratory versions of the Joad family.

The downside?  Drivers still on the road — those hustling to work, or their workout appointments — would be freed up to speed up.  Our streets are already riskier than Baghdad’s; adding hundreds of potential targets  might not be the smartest idea to come down the pike.

On the other hand, it’s worth a try.  Perhaps we can use the stimulus package to put Pied Pipers to work, leading ever-expanding flocks up and down North Avenue.

Mary Gai PUSHes Housing

What does Mary Gai know that the rest of America doesn’t?

The veteran real estate broker — a self-described “political junkie” who took economics courses in college — has watched banks across the country drown in declining assets. It’s worse in places like Florida than here, but Mary knows we’re not immune.

While bankers dither — paralyzed by indecision — Mary has a solution.

She proposes that in exchange for receiving bailout bucks, banks should turn over a portion of their vacant, foreclosed property to people.

Not just any people, mind you, but the ever-growing number of unemployed and underemployed Americans. They’ll renovate those homes using green technology, make them handicap-accessible, then turn them over for use by “the greater good.”

The greater good, Mary says, includes sick, disabled and elderly Americans. Some homes could be shared by people with specific ailments, like diabetes. That could centralize — and improve — health care.

Others could go to the elderly. Looking down the pike, Mary sees that her (my) generation of baby boomers is “ready to clog up the system.”

Mary has already formed an organization, PUSH (People United to Secure Housing).  She’s started a website.  Now she wants to spread the word.

Congressman Jim Himes showed interest, she says, but lately “seems to be dragging his feet.” Gazillionaire former McCain economics advisor Steve Forbes told Mary, “I think you’re right,” though he has not offered to help.

“I think right now people are overwhelmed,” Mary says.

She’s looking for a champion. “When people buy a home, it stimulates so many parts of the economy: brokers, attorneys, paint companies, painters, you name it,” she says. “PUSH provides work, promotes business, and stimulates the real estate market by removing vacant inventory.”

In the words of the classic vaudeville routine: “It couldn’t hoit.”