DANBURY — The election of Roberto Alves as Danbury’s first Democratic mayor in more than two decades was somewhat of a shock to city residents. Now, Alves hopes to spur economic growth with the appointment of real estate agent and investor Jorge Sousa as the city’s next economic development officer.
The 45-year-old Sousa, who was born in Portugal and has lived in the city for more than 30 years, founded Danbury-based Clearview Realty in 2008. He told CT Examiner on Tuesday that his first priority will be hearing from local business owners.
Sousa, who started the role on Dec. 26, succeeds Shay Nagarsheth. The total budget of the one-person Economic Development Office for 2023-24 is $135,898.
Sousa said he met with seven business owners and developers in his first week, with plans to meet with 10 each subsequent week.
The initial feedback from business leaders, Sousa said, involves parking, traffic, utility costs, and concerns regarding zoning regulations and the permit process.
“I feel, personally, that our zoning regulations have been really tight,” Sousa said. “They haven’t been flexible and, in order to increase our businesses coming in, we have to have some kind of flexibility.”
One example, Sousa said, concerns the zoning rules for downtown Main Street, which states that buildings can’t be more than five stories. Those rules can be looked at, he said.
Sousa also said it’s also essential to streamline the permit process “so we do not hold back smaller projects. We need to analyze each permit separately, but not hold back on something that should be turned around [quickly].”
Sousa noted that longtime Planning & Zoning Director Sharon Calitro is retiring next month and said she put “together a lot of processes. There is nothing that can’t be improved upon.”
Sousa said Calitro’s ultimate successor “should come in with an open mind and not be stuck with what was set up in the past. That person needs to look at today’s times and see what the needs are before we start making any adjustments.”
According to the city, there were 1,359 new business registrations in Danbury in 2021. Statistics for 2022 and 2023 are not yet available.
Alves told CT Examiner that Sousa has the experience to lead the city’s business community into the future.
“Jorge’s experience as a local business owner and developer is an asset not just to City Hall, but to our entire community. His vision for the future of our city aligns with the wants and needs of our community,” he said. “… We’re going to work together to reinvigorate economic growth and attract both businesses and residents to our city. This is a pivotal moment in our city’s economic development strategy, and we’re excited to get to work.”
Sousa said tax breaks and redevelopment incentives help, but that it’s important to listen to business leaders on a regular basis to hear their concerns and ideas.
To that end, Sousa said, the city and his office will be holding a first-ever Business Summit in the first quarter of 2024, with a specific date to be determined.
“The goal of the business summit is really to hear from the business leaders and to hear from their mouths what it is they need, what can we do to make business operations for them better,” he said. “I hope, and believe, that these business leaders will be honest enough to give us what the negative points are.”
In addition to navigating the city’s zoning regulations and permit process, Sousa said parking and traffic are issues of concern for business leaders, especially those downtown.
“I think one of the biggest issues we have so far with the downtown small business owners has been parking,” Sousa said. The city, he said, needs to do a better job promoting the downtown parking garage, located behind Main Street.
Sousa said the parking garage “barely gets used. Even business leaders realize that the garage is sitting there and underutilized. Many people, however, don’t even know that it’s available. I think one of the actions the mayor’s office is going to take is to put signage [for the parking garage] out.”
Sousa said he also supports bringing angle parking back to the downtown area. That plan would require new sidewalks, but he said the change would allow more parking spaces.
Traffic downtown is also a problem, albeit a welcome one, he said.
“Right now, I see a lot of people complaining about traffic, but that’s part of the pain of growing that we have to deal with,” Sousa said, suggesting a solution could be diverting traffic to both sides of Main Street and making road improvements.
The city has seen numerous new businesses over the past several years, including national chains like IHOP, Jersey Mike’s and Laredo Taco; new tenants in the Danbury Fair Mall including Target, Shake Shack and Golf Lounge 18; and the addition of Bruce Bennett Nissan/Infiniti, North American Motor Cars and Mercedes Benz to the city’s west side..
The city also welcomed the development of Encompass Health, a 100,000-square-foot inpatient rehabilitation hospital on the westside that resulted in about 70 full-time jobs.
Sousa said he’s also excited about working with developers to make the 26-acres WestConn Park a reality.
The project, which Sousa said the city hopes to break ground on within two years, will include 10 buildings for mixed-use development for residential, commercial and retail.
“It’s a great project for that area and the town,” he said. “It will also be a big tax revenue for the city.”