OLD LYME — “High-quality schools” and a “culture that values the arts” are two of Old Lyme’s top strengths, while a “lack of diverse housing options” for seniors and workers is one of the town’s biggest weaknesses. The town’s opportunities lie in delivering a “Halls Road action plan” and making the community “more connected” through biking and walking whereas the town’s biggest threat is a “perceived resistance to change.”
At least those were a few of the preliminary conclusions drawn from the feedback of 40 residents and business owners, many invited to participate, in a SWOT focus group sponsored by the town’s Economic Development Commission (EDC) on Wednesday evening at Town Hall.
The SWOT workshop (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) was the first of two that could help shape the town’s economic development objectives. The second focus group at Town Hall will meet on September 21 from 9 a.m. until noon.
In May, the town hired Connecticut Economic Resource Center (CERC), a nonprofit public-private entity that provides economic development services to municipalities, to do a SWOT analysis and to facilitate the workshops as well as a town-wide survey and a feasibility study.
What we’d like this town to become and what legacy we’d like to leave
Opening the workshop with a “30,000-foot view,” Howard Margules, co-chair of the EDC, said the town’s future involved more than the potential development of a town green, mixed-use housing and a pedestrian walkway to connect Halls Road and Lyme Street, concepts that have been discussed in Halls Road Improvements Committee meetings over the last few months.
“What we’re really talking about is who we are, what values we have, what we’d like this town to become and what legacy we’d like to leave,” he said.
The focus group was organized for “large and small companies, nonprofits, top taxpayers, board and commission members, seasonal and full-time residents, elected officials, the arts, the schools, the senior center, the chamber of commerce, the realty community,” said Courtney Hendricson, CERC vice president of municipal services, who led the workshop activities.
“We’re setting the stage for collaborative economic activities — and the reason I say collaborative is many of the groups that you represent are going to be part of the solution that we develop,” she told the participants. “We’re developing a strong foundation for our community’s future, we’re balancing the improvement of economic conditions with retaining the character of Old Lyme.”
Sitting in two large circles of 20 people each, participants brainstormed ideas, beginning with what they identified as Old Lyme’s strengths, and developed long lists that were later culled into each group’s “top 10” for each category.
Besides the schools and the arts, the focus groups said Old Lyme’s strengths were easy access to I-95, coastal and riverine water access, a low crime rate, a culture of volunteerism, philanthropy and a heritage of yearly town traditions such as the Memorial Day parade, among others.
In addition to the lack of housing options, participants identified the town’s weaknesses as vulnerability to climate change, an aging population, reliance on automobiles and limited options for public transportation, a lack of racial and economic diversity, limited employment opportunities and restrictive zoning.
The town’s opportunities included the future of Lyme Academy of Fine Arts, a focus on cultural tourism, developing a master plan for Halls Road, improving Hartford Ave., continued growth of the senior center, increasing affordable housing as well the types of housing, among others.
The groups said some of the town’s threats include global warming, the state’s condition and instability, the perception of being unfriendly to business, growth in neighboring towns, among others.
What is Old Lyme’s current brand?
“What is Old Lyme’s current brand?” Hendricson asked participants after the SWOT exercises had concluded.
Answers ranged from “the quintessential New England town” to “culture, history, art” and “a great place to raise a family. “Rich, white, safe and old,” was a phrase one group said summed up the town’s brand. Other answers included “the shoreline, estuary, river and the sound” and “a small town with high quality.”
Before the workshop ended, First Selectwoman Bonnie Reemsnyder, who participated in the focus group, thanked the EDC and commended the representatives from boards and commissions.
“One of the reasons that I started pushing this kind of initiative is because when coming into office one of the things I heard consistently is ‘we’re not business-friendly, we’re not this, we’re not that,’” said Reemsnyder. “And I think that when we all come together to try to figure out what we are and focus on our strengths and opportunities and to try to minimize those threats and weaknesses, it makes for a better community and it makes it better for all of us working together.”
As they filed out, participants were handed six red stick-on dots to place on large pieces of paper that were posted in the lobby that summed up the groups’ top 10 answers in each SWOT category. Participants marked what they considered the most significant SWOT items, creating a visual representation of the community’s collective concerns.
Post-workshop, Margules said he was impressed with the participants’ engagement and knowledge about the town but hoped that more businesses would participate in the next workshop.
“We didn’t quite hit the goal with the number of businesses and hopefully they’ll come to the next one,” he said.
After both workshops, CERC will summarize the survey and SWOT data into a publicly available document. Based on CERC’s data analysis, the EDC will recommend an economic development strategy to the Board of Selectmen.
Resident Betsy Cooley, who also co-owns the Cooley Gallery, said the SWOT exercises raised broader questions about creating a vision for the future of the town.
“Where is the town going in 50 years and what do we want?” she said.