Common Sense Solutions: Planning

 

Dear Neighbors,

A lot of residents ask me why I’m proposing a moratorium on consultant studies. Here’s my answer.

Let’s start with the Downtown Westport Master Plan – the centerpiece of an opponent’s campaign. With a price tag of $180,000, what new, innovative solutions did this consultant study propose to revitalize our downtown? More signs – to be designed by yet another consultant; “structured parking” – a fancy name for a parking garage; and a “fee based system to manage parking” – which is consultant jargon for parking meters.

These ideas are hardly new or innovative. We’ve seen them before, in every previous downtown plan. They’ve been repeatedly rejected by our residents as either too costly or out of character with our town. And they don’t address the real challenges that our Main Street is facing: empty storefronts, the loss of Mom and Pop businesses, not enough night life, nothing for teenagers and young children to do downtown.

Then there was the Compo Beach Master Plan, which contained costly, unnecessary and highly unpopular suggestions like moving the parking away from the South/West Beaches. One hundred residents came out to oppose that recommendation. You can’t fault the current administration for not implementing it.

We’ve spent $1 million on these and other consultant plans and what have we gotten for it? A campaign issue.

These plans start out with good intentions. The consultants hold “charrettes” and stakeholder meetings and surveys to gauge public opinion. But, in the end, we get a report that could be for Westport, CT or Westport, Mass or Westport, Oregon: Cookie cutter narratives. The latest planning jargon. The same suggestions for every town. No wonder these plans get put on a shelf and forgotten.

Let’s not blame the consultants. Let’s blame ourselves. We don’t know how to use consultants properly or to ensure that our voice, not theirs, sets the agenda. And we let them sell us pie in the sky ideas that sound good on paper but we know will never be implemented.

Planning for the future is important. But whether we are talking about attracting business to downtown, improving our beach or designing municipal services for the twenty-first century, we should focus on what is feasible and what works for us as Westporters. So instead of asking consultants to tell us what we need, let’s bring together our residents, our business owners and our landlords to talk about realistic, common sense projects that we can undertake now to make Westport an even better place to live.

Fact is, we don’t need consultants to teach us how to think big. For example, the biggest jolt of energy that downtown Westport has gotten in years resulted from the relocation of the Kemper-Gunn House and its restoration as a home for Serena & Lily. This project was the brainchild of a group of Westporters, not a consultant study. It is an example of what can happen when Westporters take charge of their own future.

Let me know what you think. As your First Selectman, I will always be on the lookout for creative solutions.

Best, John