Woog's World: There are a lot of reasons for businesses to 'Choose Westport'

Last weekend, 98 business spaces were on the market in Westport.

Some were vacant, like the small shopping center on Saugatuck Avenue near exit 17. Some had existing tenants, like the Saugatuck Chinese takeout restaurant just yards away, and Joey’s by the Shore across from Old Mill Beach.

Some were offices — up and down the Post Road, in Brooks Corner, on Imperial and Riverside Avenues, and Sylvan Road.

Taken together, it looks like Westport is filled with commercial property owners begging to fill empty spaces, or eager to sell what they’ve already got.

Town officials see opportunities in those spaces. In fact, they form a key feature of a new initiative. The new web site “Choose Westport” is a well-designed platform. Our first multi-media attempt to draw business here, it went live this summer.

“Are you looking forward to bringing new energy and enthusiasm to the next chapter of your business this year?” the home page asks.

“There is no better place or time to base your business in Westport,” it answers itself. “A town with boundless opportunities for spaces to work, from bustling retail locations to beautiful and convenient office space.”

There are two target audiences — current business owners looking to relocate or expand, and start-ups. All have different needs, so “Choose Westport” casts a wide net.

The site lists three specific sectors, with one business representing each. Kitt Shapiro of WEST speaks for retail; the owners of Field Trip Snacks (jerky and more), which relocated here from Brooklyn three years ago, discuss small business, and Saugatuck Financial represents financial services.

The advantages for all three are relatively the same. “Choose Westport” touts a community of like-minded people (business owners, entrepreneurs, money men and women); accessibility (a walkable downtown; proximity to New York City, as well as the beach), a cosmopolitan customer or client base, and possible cost savings.

A page on “economic vitality” touts the town’s educational base, credit rating, assets, mill rate, income and wages — all backed by impressive statistics. Transportation — access to Interstate 95, the Merritt Parkway, Route 1 and two train stations — is also considered a plus, though it might be best to strategically choose which times of day to ferry potential investors from property to property.

When it comes to describing the character of our town, “Choose Westport” threads a difficult needle. “Today, Westport is a town with a future that is bright and full of promise,” the page headed “What’s Possible” begins.

“We respect the richness of our past, and commit to addressing future challenges with particular focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion for all who live, visit, and work in our town. As an engaged community, we are bound by a passion for the arts, education, the preservation of natural resources, and our beautiful shoreline. We are uniquely positioned to thrive in the years to come.”

While that sounds like a statement hammered out by a committee, and honed through dozens of drafts, it does describe Westport — or, at least, a somewhat idealized version of what we think our town wants to be. In 2021, addressing diversity and inclusion is important. And the acknowledgment of future challenges is honest and real.

Of course, no one will invest in Westport if they can’t find people to work here. Our economic website — recognizing the current labor shortage in retail and restaurants, and the new normal that white-collar employees can now work from just about anywhere — includes a “Find Local Jobs” tab.

Last week, over 560 positions were listed. These ranged from dishwashers and servers to teachers, administrative assistants and wealth management trainees. Another nine municipal jobs were advertised, including nurse, human resources coordinator, parks superintendent and fire dispatcher.

“Choose Westport” tries to seal the deal, with a “concierge” offering. Town operations director Sara Harris is given a customized email. businesssupport@westportct.gov, as the go-to contact for anyone looking to open a business in Westport, and wanting to know more about how to “navigate the operations of the town government.”

This is an interesting time in Westport. Our downtown is undergoing a renaissance, yet there are brick-and-mortar retail headwinds nationwide. Connecticut has hemorrhaged jobs, but Westport’s residential real estate market has boomed ever since the pandemic struck. Traffic is terrible, yet, at least compared to the rest of the tri-state region, taxes are low.

“Choose Westport” is proactive. It’s a recognition that new businesses don’t just land here. We’re competing with communities around the country. Some have better weather, lower labor costs or other amenities.

We’ve got plenty going for us, for sure. The choice is never easy. But at least we’re giving the people we want — and need — a choice.

Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his “Woog's World” appears each Friday. He can be reached at dwoog@optonline.net. His personal blog is danwoog06880.com.