STAMFORD — The city has a sales pitch — a lure to builders, businesses and millennials out of New York City — and one keenly put to work in a recent 20-page Stamford spread in an airline magazine.
Come to Stamford, the pitch goes, just a few short miles from New York without all the cost and crowding.
But Stamford isn’t the only city a mere train ride away. And it’s far from the only city with a marketing budget.
There is booming White Plains, New York and fellow Sound Shore spot, New Rochelle, which has embarked on an advertising campaign that includes an Interstate 95 billboard that says “last stop before New York City rents” and a millennial seduction effort that has installed public art.
New Rochelle even runs ads on the trains, in the same cars ferrying commuters to and from Stamford’s Transportation Center.
Further down the line are Norwalk, Greenwich and Fairfield — each vying for economic development to fit their needs. In early 2017, Stamford, those three and Westport joined as a united front to bring economic development to Fairfield County as the Fairfield County Five. The group can better compete as a region, members say, and there has been no Connecticut competition since.
City Economic Development Director Thomas Madden said all Connecticut cities are on the same team, competing against other regions — namely Westchester County. Still, there are two standouts in the county’s five — the two largest cities, Stamford and Norwalk.
“The problem in the past is that every municipality was siloed out,” he said. “We’re here to support everybody. If I have a company that I can’t fit into Stamford, I give Norwalk a call.”
Norwalk appears ready for the call, with a bevy of promotional websites of its own — including Visit SoNO, Visit Norwalk, and Norwalk Now — that last of which bears a slogan on its home page that states “Norwalk Now is Norwalk in Real Time — the heartbeat of a New York City suburb featuring the vibrant retail, dining, entertainment, and recreational lifestyle of a thriving coastal community.”
In each of the two years since it launched in 2017, the city allocated $100,000 to its Parking Authority to invest in Norwalk Now, which is “a collaborative marketing group comprised of Norwalk’s urban core businesses,” and is the brainchild of Parking Authority Director Kathryn Hebert and Board Chairman Richard Brescia, who began reaching out to local businesses several years ago.
“I think the success that the folks in Stamford have had was the primary influence, and that came from the people who were talking to us during our outreach,” Brescia said.
In particular, two merchants on Washington Street noted the work of the Stamford Downtown Special Services District, which has been credited with re-invigorating Stamford’s core over the past few decades with outdoor concerts, events such as the Thanksgiving parade and annual public art exhibits.
“One of the goals of the Parking Authority is to leverage parking dollars for economic and community development initiatives,” Hebert said. “The business community, their priority was marketing of the city’s districts and individual businesses. So the Parking Authority decided it would invest in a collaborative marketing initiative.”
At the moment, the Norwalk Now site represents 35 hospitality businesses and hospitality tourism nonprofits (the Lockwood Matthews Mansion, Norwalk Historical Society Museum and the WPA Murals, among them), in South Norwalk, Wall Street and West Avenue areas, though Hebert said the plan is to expand the initiative to cover all of greater Norwalk.
Developers say municipal marketing efforts are part of bigger picture that lures builders like them and businesses that soon become their tenants.
“It all helps,” said Ted Ferrarone, chief operating officer for Building and Land Technology, the developer behind Harbor Point, the multi-billion-dollar apartment development in Stamford’s South End.
“There is no silver bullet, it’s a summation of things,” he said.
Ferrarone said that advertisements and airline features on a city could bring a municipality to the front of one’s mind — be they a builder, visitor or a business — but for businesses “it’s a question of which city is going to suit you best … then where in the city.”
Greg Belew, tri-state area president for Lennar Multifamily Communities, the apartment-building arm of the U.S.’s largest home-builder, Lennar, agreed.
Lennar will soon build a 440-unit building in White Plains, and has plans for another. In Stamford, the company will build a luxury apartment building where one of the St. John’s Towers next to the Government Center once stood.
“It’s good to see this kind of boosterism for economic growth,” he said. “Our decisions were based on our perception of Stamford a tier-one ring city around New York.”
Though the Fairfield Five effort bills itself as collaborative, it wasn’t the county or any other city with a two-part Delta Sky Magazine profile that starts like any other bedroom community song and dance.
“Location is everything,” the first profile begins before entertaining lively quotes from big developers and businesses all preaching the city’s gospel. Madden, the economic development director, called Stamford a “boomtown.”
Mayor David Martin, too, spoke fondly of boomtown, Conn.
“The city continues to invest in its infrastructure from parks and roadways to telecommunications and schools,” he told the magazine. “Stamford is the place people are moving to because it is a wonderful place to live, work play and raise a family.”
“Live, Work, Play” placards also adorn street lights in Stamford’s Harbor Point.
As for the play aspect of the city, Martin “enjoys kayaking on Long Island Sound and taking sunrise yoga classes in Mill River Park,” according to a companion piece on the city’s thriving nightlife and millennial friendly amenities.
Yoga is apparently a selling point in Norwalk, too. A promotional video posted to Norwalk Now’s Facebook page in December showed Mayor Harry Rilling and his wife, Lucia, visiting shops, restaurants and, you guessed it, a yoga studio in South Norwalk. It was criticized as a taxpayer-funded campaign advertisement by some in the city.
Madden said Stamford didn’t pay for the features, but instead gathered enough advertisers for Delta to sign off. The city took out two full-page advertisements, and other full-page players included Charter Communications, the cable giant now building its new headquarters in the South End, and the University of Connecticut-Stamford, which opened dorms in 2017.
The effort was paid for from a $60,000 budget this fiscal year for marketing efforts, Madden said. The same $60,000 has put on events for the Fairfield Five.
“We’ve been ramping it up,” he said. But “we work on a very sparse budget with a lot of interns.”
The $60,000 is a “a drop in the bucket compared to a lot of other cities,” he said. New Rochelle, whose advertisement campaigns Madden said were pricey, did not answer a request for its marketing budget this year. New York’s Journal News reported the city spent nearly $70,000 in 2015 to define its “brand.”
Stamford that year spent nothing on marketing efforts, but has spent each year since. The money in 2015-16 bought the city a new logo and another slogan — The City that Works is also “innovating since 1641.”
Some 18 months ago, the marketing budget launched a Stamford economic development website, choosestamford.com. The site has layered maps of tax-advantaged parcels, “incentive zones” that can grant builders and businesses state and federal tax breaks.
A property search on the site takes you to all open office space around the city, and the department has plotted all of the city’s public art and posts quarterly reports on the city stats like the unemployment rate.
As for its neighboring city, Norwalk hired Jessica Casey in December as its chief of economic and community development, one of five new roles added as part of the mayor’s reorganization of the local government.
Her role includes planning, organizing and implementing economic and community development, from conception to completion, including planning, zoning, code enforcement, business development and tourism, according to the job description posted by the city. Her salary is $155,000. Stamford’s Madden in 2017 made $144,000.
Casey is just a few weeks on the job, but part of her work in the coming year will be to harness the various marketing initiatives coming out of City Hall.
“There are different outlets, different portals speaking to different people. We want to wrap our arms around all that Norwalk is doing, and ensure all the messaging is the same messaging and that we’re all consistent in what we’re talking about,” Casey said. “There needs to be an economic development portal or some landing spot. That will be a goal in 2019.”
Asked if there is a competitive air to her new job, with Stamford and other Fairfield Five municipalities often vying for the same investors and residents, Casey demurred.
“I think there is a real benefit to everybody marketing the region as a whole,” Casey said. “I think we’re all linked with transportation, the water and what we have to offer as far as attributes go.”