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Old Lyme selectmen, development agency push for comprehensive study

Old Lyme — Town officials are considering taking part in an economic development study and analysis that could cost more than $50,000 — a valuable step, they say, in planning long-term economic growth in town.

Conducted by the Connecticut Economic Resource Center — known as CERC, a public-private nonprofit agency that works with towns across the state — the study would utilize surveys, focus groups, workshops, housing studies, industry analyses and more to offer a big-picture look at the town’s current business climate, while also providing strategic insight toward development efforts.

The Board of Finance shot down a proposal by the Selectmen last December to appropriate $44,000 to begin work with CERC, prompting the Economic Development Commission to request $46,000 in next year’s budget to pay for the bulk of the study. It still would need approval from the Board of Finance.

On Monday night, in an effort to start the study as soon as April, the Board of Selectmen agreed to appropriate an $8,000 request from the EDC, which also requires Board of Finance approval.

“From the EDC’s point of view, (this study) is the first step in the process to help support businesses in town and attract new business while keeping in character with the town,” EDC Co-chairman Howard Margules said. The EDC requested the $8,000 to “get the ball rolling” and “get the survey underway” rather than wait for the study to be adopted in next year’s budget, he said.

As part of that initial funding, CERC first would work with town officials through a series of workshops and focus groups before creating surveys to distribute to local businesses.

Then, pending approval from the EDC, Board of Selectmen and ultimately the Board of Finance, CERC, for an estimated price of $44,000, will complete a comprehensive “feasibility study” analyzing “demographic trends” and demands for housing and retail, among several other points.

After the feasibility study, the town also would receive weekly on-site support from a CERC representative to create a long-term marketing strategy to attract new businesses.

“All the information we would gain from CERC will be used to help the town responsibly plan for economic development while also learning how to sustain already existing businesses,” First Selectwoman Bonnie Reemsnyder said Monday. “It’s clear that our community has certain limitations. Let’s acknowledge it. But doing something like this could give us valuable information to plan our town long-term.”

Should the Board of Finance approve the first $8,000 needed for the study, initial steps can be completed as soon as spring, Reemsnyder said.

The feasibility study, once started, would take approximately three months, while an on-site representative can work for the town as long as officials see fit, said Bennett "BJ" Bernblum, who first proposed the town work with CERC last spring, and who chairs the Halls Road Improvements Committee. He is also a member of the Board of Finance.

Reemsnyder also said Tuesday that a free 90-minute workshop “designed to get everyone working collaboratively,” according to CERC’s formal proposal to the town, is scheduled April 10.

Of the information gained from the study, Reemsnyder said officials would learn which businesses could best be sustained by the town and where — especially valuable knowledge, she said, in wake of proposals to improve Halls Road.

“If a private developer was potentially interested in developing here, the data and analysis presented through CERC would be useful to determine if their business would even be supported,” Reemsnyder said.

Bernblum agreed Tuesday, saying a completed CERC study also may help the town secure government grants toward Halls Road improvements in the future.

"This group has proven experience and a good reputation for doing good work in this area," Bernblum said. "We thought this would be a cost-effective way, compared to hiring a private organization, to get this needed work done."

"Our common sense tells us that we could attract new residential and business properties to town and Halls Road," Bernblum continued. "But this study would provide the empirical backup for those assumptions. So, yes, new businesses can come, but what kind? Where is there a need? Where is there a market? This would look at all that."


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