Old Lyme finance board approves over $50,000 toward development study

Old Lyme — The Board of Finance on Tuesday unanimously approved to budget approximately $52,000 toward an economic development study and analysis — the “first time the town has put some teeth behind an effort to support the business community,” Economic Development Commission Co-chairman Howard Margules said Wednesday.

The study, which still is subject to final approval by the EDC, will be conducted by the Connecticut Economic Resource Center, also known as CERC — a public-private nonprofit agency that works with towns across the state.

Utilizing surveys, focus groups, workshops, housing studies, industry analyses and more, CERC, according to its proposal submitted to the town earlier this month, will offer a big-picture look at the town’s current business climate, while also providing strategic insight toward development efforts.

Of the information expected to be gained from the study, First Selectman Bonnie Reemsnyder previously has said that officials would be able to effectively learn which businesses could best be sustained by the town and where — knowledge that is especially valuable, she said, in wake of proposals to improve Halls Road.

“This is a great first step,” EDC Co-chair Justin Fuller said while speaking at Tuesday's finance board meeting. “It will get the EDC started down a path of success.”

“The number one goal (of this study) is to identify the real and perceived challenges that Old Lyme has in regards to economic development and, more importantly, retaining our existing businesses and their character today,” Fuller continued. “This is laying the groundwork for a strategic economic development plan for the town of Old Lyme.”

Broken down, an initial $8,075, appropriated into this year’s budget by the finance board Tuesday night, will be spent to begin work with CERC as soon as April. As part of that, CERC first will work with town officials through a series of workshops and focus groups before creating surveys to distribute to local businesses — a “qualitative analysis” that will inform the next quantitative and analytical steps of the study, said Courtney Hendrickson, vice president of municipal services for CERC.

A free 90-minute workshop “designed to get everyone working collaboratively,” according to CERC’s formal proposal to the town, is scheduled April 10.

An additional $44,160, also approved into next year’s budget Tuesday night, will finance the rest of the study, set to take place throughout 2019. That will include a comprehensive “feasibility study” analyzing “demographic trends” and demands for housing and retail, among several other points. It also may include possible on-site support from a CERC representative, who would help create a long-term marketing strategy to attract new businesses.

EDC members still can opt to not carry out the second part of the study, Reemsnyder said by phone Wednesday. Should that happen, unspent remainders of the $44,160 included in next year’s budget would go back into the town's general fund.

Before the board voted to approve the funding, there was some speculation as to whether the overall study, specifically the feasibility study portion of the proposal, would be helpful toward giving the town an accurate picture of its business climate.

Finance board member David Kelsey questioned the need for improving the town’s business environment and later argued that, if improvements are needed, the EDC first should look into those before determining which industries and businesses could operate successfully within town.

“(It’s) just (making) sure we are logically going through these steps and that we are not spending this money on stuff that we don’t really want or need,” Kelsey said at that meeting.

Margules responded saying the EDC would not propose financing a study they did not feel would be worthwhile. "We wouldn't be involved with this if it was just going to fail and we weren't going to implement it. If we find something that we are not comfortable with this, we just won't go forward and spend the money."

Kelsey, as well as finance board members H.P. Garvin and Janet Sturges, turned down an original proposal made by selectmen last December to appropriate $44,000 to begin work with CERC, prompting the EDC’s requests Tuesday.

Finance board alternate Judith Read also questioned whether future suggestions from the CERC study would align well with zoning and planning regulations already in place.

EDC member Gregory Symon spoke to that point, saying that, overall, the EDC needs to better align itself with various town boards, including zoning, planning and the Chamber of Commerce, to ensure that its future vision for Old Lyme could be successfully implemented.

“If we don’t have alignment with these organizations, then we will just spin our wheels,” Symon said. “Today we are all in silence, and that’s not being done purposely. But the key to this success is that we have to break down the silos and the EDC has to look at this horizontally. We have to be interrelated and interlocked with all these different groups so no one is confused and everyone knows up front what the plan is.”

m.biekert@theday.com

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