Common Sense Solutions: Revitalizing Our Business Districts

This is the fifth of an eight-part digital series where I address my positions on a range of different town issues that Westporters care about. Click on the first four of the series to see them: Traffic, School Funding, The Arts Center at Barons South and Affordable Housing.  

Dear Neighbor,

For years, Westport has prided itself on being the premier retail shopping destination in Fairfield County. Now, Main Street and the Post Road are full of empty storefronts, and every day we hear about another high end clothing chain threatening to move out. What happened?

It’s simple, and it’s not just Westport. People have changed the way they shop, making the traditional downtown business model unsustainable. As shoppers increasingly use the internet to buy clothes and household goods, brick and mortar stores suffer. Some businesses—gas stations and grocery stores, for example—are less vulnerable (although this may change). But ironically, these kinds of businesses were driven off Main Street years ago and replaced by high end clothing chains—the very businesses that have been hardest hit by internet sales.

These stores, the backbone of Main Street, are not coming back. Throwing away money on new, improved downtown infrastructure—sidewalks, fancy signs and parking garages—won’t bring them back.     

In sum, the Downtown Master Plan, with its emphasis on enhancing the retail shopping experience, is already obsolete.

So what common sense solutions will build a new business model for our commercial areas?

Please, let’s not ask consultants. Instead, it’s time for a community conversation about what kinds of businesses motivate Westporters to leave their computer screens and go downtown or to the Post Road. Then let’s work with our landlords to attract those type of businesses to Westport. Our own residents should be our target customer base. If we come back, others will follow.

Let’s make an active effort to encourage our own local entrepreneurs to set up in Westport.

Let’s think about the “evening economy”—restaurants, food shops, gyms, internet cafes and places for teenagers. Are current zoning regulations friendly to these kinds of businesses?

Finally, let’s address traffic congestion where it’s actually a problem, which is not Main Street itself, but every road that takes you downtown. It doesn’t matter how attractive Westport’s shopping districts are if you can’t get there. And let’s be realistic. We may walk once we get downtown, but most of us get there by car. I’ve already outlined some common sense solutions for Westport’s most congested intersections.

We need to understand and address the real challenges that Westport’s business districts are facing before it’s too late. That’s what I’ll do as your First Selectman.

Best, John