First selectman candidates debate how to help Wesport’s business community
Updated 3:49 pm, Friday, October 20, 2017
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly said John Suggs was a Republican. The story has been been changed to reflect the fact he is a former Democrat.
WESTPORT — The town’s business challenges were front and center at last week’s first selectman debate.
Hosted by the Westport Weston Chamber of Commerce, the Oct. 12 debate pitted incumbent Jim Marpe, a Republican, against challengers Melissa Kane, the chairman of Westport’s Democratic Town Committee, John Suggs, a former Democrat who changed his party affiliation to unaffiliated to run as an independent candidate, and Timothy “TJ” Elgin, also running as an independent.
“Successful businesses and commercial real estate owners feel that they’ve been seen and treated more as burdens than assets to the town,” said Kane, who frequently referenced conversations she’s had with members of Westport’s business community during the 1.5-hour-long debate.
Kane proposed to improve business relations by making the town permitting process less costly and more efficient, improving the town’s communications, and dealing with Westport’s traffic and infrastructure issues.
The current first selectman countered, pointing out what he has already done to help the town.
Board of Selectmen and Board of Finance candidates will debate Oct. 24 from 7-9 p.m. in Town Hall, sponsored by Westport’s League of Women Voters.
“Our largest employers have had an open channel to my office to secure our employment base while promoting a diversified array of small business employers,” Marpe said.
Marpe acknowledged Westport’s business community is “under attack by the Amazon effect” and said he’s worked to reverse the trend “by investing in infrastructure and amenities, keeping our tax rate flat, and leveraging the reputation of our town’s world-class schools and our thriving arts community.”
The first selectman also highlighted his efforts with the “Fairfield Five,” a collaboration of four other municipalities and the Chamber of Commerce to attract new businesses and residents to the Fairfield County area.
Making the downtown thrive
One specific topic many of the candidates focused on was the Downtown Master Plan, aimed at encouraging a vibrant downtown where businesses can thrive.
Suggs took aim at the plan he claimed is “focusing on enhancing high-end retail shopping,” which he said is not coming back.
In a pointed response to Suggs, Kane, who co-chaired the Downtown Plan Implementation Committee and chaired the Downtown Steering Committee that facilitated the creation of Westport’s Downtown Master Plan, said the plan does not encourage “high-end retail.”
Suggs, however, said an economic and commercial shift occurring across the country that has led to the death of high-end retail.
Taking a macroeconomic view of Westport’s retail challenges, Suggs proposed disbanding the Master Plan Implementation Committee and said residents should “rebuild our downtown by ourselves.”
“We need to get Westporters out from behind their computer screens and downtown,” he said.
While Kane disagreed with Suggs’ viewpoint on the Downtown Master Plan, she did say Westport needs a strategy to compete with online shopping.
To promote Westport’s downtown, Kane promised to “leverage our positives” and use creative thinking to deal with commercial vacancies, such as pop-up shops, gallery spaces and public art.
Marpe echoed Kane’s point about the need to improve “the experience of shopping,” adding, “Amazon really can’t treat you to a romantic dinner, or they can’t provide a fitness class for you.”
Elgin claimed the answer to the town’s retail issues is simpler than the other candidates suggested and spoke of the need to reason with the landlords who he accused of price-gouging.
Turning to how Westport can remain economically viable despite Hartford’s fiscal mess, Marpe once again cited the Fairfield Five initiative, which he said is aimed at attracting “entrepreneurial, innovative businesses, probably with a technology link.”
Kane applauded the Board of Finance for protecting Westport’s finances and reiterated her desire to improve what she called the town’s “byzantine processes for applying for permitting” in order to attract more businesses and residents to Westport.
Elgin spoke of the “need to become more self-sustainable” in light of Hartford’s fiscal woes.
Suggs maintained his commitment to a flat tax rate and said the answer to Westport’s financial stability is pension reform. “Our employees are represented by the unions,” Suggs said, “Taxpayers are represented by us.”
In a jab once again pointed at Kane, a current RTM member, Suggs said, “I can’t understand why one of my opponents voted ‘no’ on the police pension settlement and then turned right around and voted ‘yes’ on the exact same settlement for the fire department.”
To address everyone’s favorite issue, traffic, Suggs cited his work fighting to save the Cribari Bridge, which he claimed kept tractor-trailers out of Westport. Suggs suggested “common sense solutions to respond to traffic congestion,” such as a plan to change the timing of traffic lights to allow more cars to get through congested intersections.
Kane proposed a “train-to-main shuttle” to decrease traffic congestion and spoke passionately of the need to leverage the Fairfield Five’s power to lobby the federal government to decrease transit times for commuters to New York City.
Marpe said he’s working with the Department of Transportation (DOT) to decrease train times and ensured that the Greens Farm station will not be built if he’s re-elected because high speed rail “makes no sense for this community.”
Elgin was alone in supporting a proposed toll system on Interstate 95 to address traffic, which Marpe quickly rebutted and said will drive more people into Westport.
Encouraging economic growth
Once again unique in his positions, Elgin proposed tax incentives for small businesses, which the three other candidates said is not the answer.
Marpe instead suggested creating clusters of like-minded businesses, such as those in home-furnishings design or technology.
Suggs echoed Marpe’s idea — but with a twist. Suggs suggested creating work spaces where Westporters could gather. Residents who currently work out of the homes — in a second bedroom, their basement — would “benefit enormously if we had shared workspace-hubs downtown,” he said.
As for Kane, she suggested better signage to point newcomers to the town’s business corridors, an idea similar to one included in the Downtown Master Plan.
Once again, Suggs criticized the Downtown Master Plan, calling it “obsolete” and its proposed $500,000 to improve town signage a “vanity project.”
Kane cited several accomplishment thanks to the plan, such as improvements to Toquet Hall, $650,00 in grants to study flooding, and bike rack installations.
The League of Women Voters is sponsoring the next first selectman debate to be held Tuesday night at 7 p.m. in Town Hall.