OLD LYME — The Economic Development Commission approved a long-awaited feasibility study prepared by AdvanceCT and decided to use leftover funds from the project to hire AdvanceCT for economic development implementation services during a Webex meeting Wednesday.
At the same time, commission members acknowledged that the study was based on pre-pandemic data and voted unanimously to add a cover page explaining that the research was done pre-COVID-19.
“It’s interesting, I think over the [next] two years we’re going to see a lot of changes in that data that they gathered, [for example] how and where people go to work,” said Commission Co-chair Justin Fuller.
AdvanceCT used data collected in 2019 from a town wide survey and SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) workshops to create the study. AdvanceCT, formerly the Connecticut Economic Resource Center, or CERC, is a nonprofit that works to advance overall economic competitiveness in the state, in collaboration with the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development.
During the meeting, commission members emphasized their mission to move forward with shaping the economic development of the town, despite the disruption of the pandemic and its unknown aftermath.
Commission member Greg Symon said the “new normal,” however it is defined, may last for an extended period.
“I think it’s important that we think about the fact that people are likely going to move to suburbs and work using technology and bandwidth,” he said. “A lot of companies have figured out that productivity has not decreased dramatically and they’re realizing that this might not be a bad thing to do in the future.”
Symon said there is evidence the pandemic is causing a resurgence of flight from the cities, which would benefit the region.
“People may want to move to Connecticut and to Old Lyme,” he said. “I think this could be for the next 10 years an increase in the number of folks living in Connecticut. For years we were going in the wrong direction. This could start to turn around for us. This could be a very strong foundation for us to drive economic development.”
The study calls attention to the “hot button issue” of Old Lyme’s housing stock, said commission member Candace Fuchs.
“The report importantly does point out that our housing stock does lean toward large and expensive and that the town would be more competitive if we had more housing stock for singles and younger people at a lower price point range,” she said. “And this was a hot topic when the affordable housing issue came up about a year and a half ago. But I think this is still top of mind and I think that the COVID situation only underscores that need.”
The report puts data behind the concept that Old Lyme needs a broader range of housing stock, which is worth highlighting, said Fuchs.
“It’s one of the key issues in this town,” commented Edie Twining, commission member and also chair of the Halls Road Improvements Committee.
The commission plans to use $8,000 left over from the $52,000 voters approved in May 2019 toward the cost of the study, survey and SWOT workshops to hire AdvanceCT for “economic development implementation services.”
Courtney Henricson, a vice president of partnerships at AdvanceCT, who was on the call, explained what the town will receive.
“We take that data and in partnership with you all, we approach businesses and/or industry sectors through professional associations that we belong to, trade groups that we know, our broad network, et cetera. And we literally just get on the horn with that and say come visit, can we show you, and we match with the commercial land or properties that are available. We work side by side with you, but we can take the lead on those actual tactics getting done,” she said.
The commission will also work with AdvanceCT to create a slide deck with highlights of the study that can be presented to other town boards and commissions.
Fuller said he wanted the study to supplement and inform the Planning Commission’s update of the town’s Plan of Conservation of Development Planning, which is scheduled to be finished by the end of the year.
Co-chair Howard Margules said the timing of the study was “fortuitous” in helping the town move forward through the challenges of the pandemic.
“This is going to be a crucial time. Lots of towns will be in financial trouble and they’ll try to solve that by growing and attracting business. There will be a lot of competition,” he said. “To have a plan before us puts us ahead … Whatever we do we still have two major goals which are to attract new businesses that fit the character of the town and to support the businesses that we have and we’re going to need that more than ever.”