Peruse the menu of dining establishments participating in this week's Westport Restaurant Week and there are a number of eateries you would not have found among those in the popular promotion's lineup several years ago.
Like Westport's dining sector, Restaurant Week's organizer, the Westport-Weston Chamber of Commerce, is growing and increasingly visible. The seven-day restaurant promotion, which offers patrons prix-fixe rates at 21 participating restaurants, is one in a series of events organized throughout the year by the merchants' group. The nonprofit organization also holds approximately 60 networking events each year, as well as "leadership luncheons" featuring state business leaders and forums for local working women.
During the last year, the chamber's membership base has grown by about 30 percent to approximately 300 businesses. That increase in the group's reach has taken place under the leadership of Lisa Parrelli Gray, who took over as the nonprofit organization's president and executive director in January 2012. A Westport resident since 2001, Parrelli Gray was already familiar with the town's economy, having formerly worked as an agent for Prudential Connecticut Realty.
Under Parrelli Gray's direction, the Westport-Weston Chamber of Commerce has also taken on a more active role in economic development issues facing the downtown area. The chamber last fall made a $10,000 pledge to help fund creation of a new master plan of development for the town center.
Parrelli Gray sat down with the Westport News recently to discuss the chamber's support of the downtown master plan, the town's flourishing restaurant scene and her recommendations for addressing the town's parking and traffic challenges.
Q: Why has the Chamber of Commerce committed $10,000 to help fund a new master plan of development for downtown Westport?
A: I really think the town has to back this opportunity to really focus on the Downtown 2020 Committee's recommendation of having a consultant to really drive the direction of how we go about this because there is so much construction going on now [in downtown Westport]. You have all these opportunities; people are just building now.
You want to save and preserve the charm of Westport. I think that's part of the challenge for us because there really are no regulations or vision on how we want to see us in 10 years or 20 years. It's all sort of building for today, but there needs to be some guidance as to what is the vision for our town and how we want to look and present ourselves to each other and to the outside community.
We have three other master plans on the shelf collecting dust. So why do we need another one? Because they're outdated and we really need to look at what's going on today and then incorporate that into the vision that we participate in as a community. We need to create the vision in the community so there's buy-in. If I decide that this is what it should be and nobody is part of the process, there's not going to be a lot of buy-in. Without the opportunity to contribute, you're not going to get people to buy in and support the need for this sort of thing.
Q: During the last couple of years, a number of new restaurants have opened throughout Westport. Why is the dining scene now flourishing?
A: I think it's the relaxed regulations by P&Z [the Planning and Zoning Commission]. We can now have restaurants within 1,500 feet of each other that have a liquor license. And we now allow restaurants to have outdoor seating -- that's huge. The public was screaming for this and the restaurants have been screaming for it. Quite frankly, we were so unfriendly to restaurants until a couple of years ago, that's why they were opening everywhere but Westport.
Clearly, the regulations that have been adopted are a big reason why restaurants are coming to town. That, coupled with the resurgence of activity in retail and other businesses, I think people see Westport for what it is, which is an incredibly diverse and energetic place when it comes to businesses. And people want to be part of the action. And if the regulations are favorable, that's even more of a reason to be a part of it.
Q: What are some infrastructure improvements that would help the town's economy?
A: I think we need to do a much better job as a town creating sidewalks. Everywhere, we really limit ourselves by the lack of sidewalks we have in this town. It's what makes a community closer, too. I'm a huge proponent of having sidewalks on all the side streets or the major arteries in our town. I think that every street that enters the Post Road should have a sidewalk. What sidewalks do is they help you walk and get exercise. It eliminates a need for a lot of people to use a car. Parking then is not so much of an issue.
I think if we had continuous, safe sidewalks on the Post Road, the need to have a car to go downtown would be lessened.
Q: Many residents and downtown business owners believe that the town center lacks adequate parking. How would you propose to tackle that issue?
A: Certainly, it needs to be addressed. Everyone agrees that it is a crime that there is a parking lot [in Parker-Harding Plaza] when it's on the river. I'd love to see that eliminated. I'd love to see it be more like a park-like area where people can have picnics and restaurants could have their tables out.
We definitely can improve upon the parking. I think everyone would agree with that. I think we need to think outside the box. It's not just about creating more parking spots. It's about how do we transport more people downtown and up and down the Post Road without cars. I think there's not just one way to do it. I don't think just building a parking garage is going to solve the problem. I think it's about providing other opportunities to get downtown. I think having mini-buses would be awesome. I'd be happy to pay for that.
Q: Some residents and local merchants say there are too many national retailers in Westport, especially in the town center. Do you agree?
A: I think that they [the national retailers] are not going away and we need to make room for everybody at the table. And I think I'd like to see more of a mix, less dominance by national retailers. At the same time, they bring revenue to our town and they bring a diversity of shopping that you can't really find anywhere else in Fairfield County in an outdoor setting. I think there's a lot of value that they bring.
I would like to see more opportunities for small businesses or mom-and-pop businesses to open up because I think we're missing out. We don't have the diversity, and I'd like to see more of it. But that is something that has to be worked out with landlords and with an opportunity for an economic policy to be created that supports small businesses and I think we need to be better at doing that as a town. I think that's more of a solution than discouraging the national retailers.
Q: What regulatory changes, if any, are needed to help Westport businesses?
A: I think we need to create regulations that are more forgiving to signage, so that especially new businesses that come into town have the opportunity to really promote themselves and advertise themselves. The limitations on signs are offensive to me. That's one thing that people keep talking to me about, so that's something that I hope to be involved in advocating for.
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