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Forum highlights mass transit’s role in southwestern Connecticut development

The region’s economic development outlook is improving as the nation’s economy pulls out of the recession, with much of the focus now on transit-oriented development (TOD) near the railway line on the coast.

That was one of the conclusions of a March 29 forum on development and construction trends in southwestern Connecticut held at Bridgeport’s Bijou Theatre.

“Mass transit really is the game,” said Joe McGee of the Business Council of Fairfield County, who moderated the event. Look for municipalities from Greenwich to New Haven to “invest big bucks” to support projects near train stations, said Mr. McGee, vice president of public policy and programs for the Stamford-based business organization.

Representatives of seven communities in Fairfield and New Haven counties gave presentations and answered audience questions during “The Road Ahead … Are We There Yet? Navigating Forward Through Economic Recovery.” The forum was sponsored by the University of Hartford’s Construction Institute and its Fairfield County affiliate chapter.

The representatives — most of them municipal directors of economic development — talked about projects underway or in the planning stages in their cities and towns.

Mr. McGee, who was state economic development commissioner in the early 1990s, said the national recession now is over. “It’s been painful and it’s been long,” he said. “It’s a slow path out of it.”

He said how Connecticut deals with its infrastructure needs — such as roads, rail and water treatment systems — in the next decade will play a major role in how well the economy does in Connecticut.

Tim Sheehan, executive director of the Norwalk Redevelopment Agency, said while the situation was “sober” a year ago, he now would describe the region’s economic prospects as “cautious but optimistic.”

The big cities

Donald Eversley, economic development director of Bridgeport, promoted the Park City as “an affordable, growing location” in the middle of an affluent, pricey region.

Mr. Eversley said the city’s downtown has benefited from new housing units and arts and entertainment venues. “We are experiencing tremendous interest in downtown residential living,” he said.

Brownfields are being cleaned, old factories renovated for other uses, and pro-development municipal policies put in place, Mr. Eversley said. “Our charge is to find solutions to get projects done,” he said.

The city hopes to construct a second train station on its East Side, close to Bridgeport Hospital.

Laura C. Aubuchon, economic development director of Stamford, said a goal has been to turn downtown Stamford into a 24/7 neighborhood. The center city has seen massive corporate development in the past three decades.

New high-end, high-rise residential complexes being built along the nearby South End waterfront are filling up quickly, Aubuchon said.

NBC Sports will soon move its operations into a former industrial site now being renovated in Stamford, which also will house a huge indoor recreational complex.

Other areas

Mark S. Barnhart, economic development director of Fairfield, talked about the new Metro Fairfield train station and the vacant Exide site near Fairfield Center.

Rail service began in December at Metro Fairfield, but much of the related private office development will take longer due to the economy. Plans are being modified to match the needs of the current market, with housing being added to the mix.

The land at the 6.2-acre Exide property, vacant for decades due to pollution, has been remediated. The site could be ready for development in late 2013 or 2014, as soon as the Mill River also is cleaned of pollution, Mr. Barnhart said.

Stephen J. Vavrek, first selectman of Monroe, said the suburban town has available land for office and industrial use that is less expensive than that found in cities, and also offers less traffic congestion than the I-95 corridor.

Mr. Vavrek said the town’s land-use regulations are being updated to make the town more business friendly.

Lee Hossler, economic development chairman of Monroe, said commercial lots of one to 42 acres are available to develop in Monroe.

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