FAIRFIELD, Conn. -- Mark Barnhart believes Fairfield’s best days are still to come from a business development perspective. The town’s Director of Economic Development believes even the loss of one of America’s corporate giants won’t derail the town’s long-term goals.
General Electric, which had been headquartered in Fairfield since 1974, announced in January that it was moving its headquarters to Boston.
While disappointing, Barnhart believes GE’s move will not be a crushing economic blow. He feels the emergence of Commerce Drive, near the Fairfield Metro train station, will spur economic development. The train station opened in 2011, and Barnhart says it’s just a matter of time before economic development blossoms in the area.
“It has already transformed the area,’’ said Barnhart, who has been in his position since 2002. “We haven’t seen the development we’d like to see there yet, but it’s more a question of when, not if. You can see it in the lifestyle people want today. They want to be close to an urban environment. They want to be close to transit connections so they can get where they need to go. At Fairfield Metro, they have direct access to New York. Right now, there’s so much office space available in Lower Fairfield County. That needs to sort itself out. It will eventually happen, and it will bode well for the town’s economic future.”
While Barnhart paints an optimistic long-term view for Fairfield’s economic future, the short-term prism was undeniably hurt by GE’s decision to vacate its 68-acre property. “There’s no question that’s a big hit for the town, especially from a psychological view,’’ Barnhart said. “For 40 years, our image, our brand, was somewhat defined by General Electric. It’s something we have to deal with.”
Initial fears that GE’s move would adversely impact the town’s real estate market, however, have proven unfounded. In addition, some GE employees will be shifted to other facilities within Fairfield County.
“Those concerns have been somewhat allayed,’’ Barnhart said. “The building and its assets are not going anywhere and will remain on the tax rolls. There’s an opportunity there. No one likes to lose one of the most iconic brands in the world. But it’s a large tract of land that is viable for redevelopment. That’s the silver lining. There is good potential there for additional development.”
One of the new initiatives in Barnhart’s playbook to attract interest in Fairfield is a tourism website that has been 18 months in the making. Barnhart hopes the new site increases visitation to a number of venues, and extends the duration of the visits. The town worked with the Fairfield Museum and History Center, Fairfield Theatre, Sacred Heart University, Fairfield University and Audubon Society to develop a cohesive plan to attract more visitors.
“All of our marketing materials were dated. We hadn’t produced a new marketing piece in some time,’’ Barnhart said. “We focused initially on a town map and guide. of the town and put together a guide. We thought it would be a good investment, and we put together a complementary website to serve as an aggregator . The website is fairly simple to navigate, and it aligns perfectly with what the state is doing.”
One of Barnhart’s biggest challenges is the small team with which he has to work. He gets around it by teaming with the Chamber of Commerce and businesses to help the town grow. “Having a small team is a blessing and a curse,’’ he said. “The town has been supportive in giving us the resources we need. It’s good in a way, because it allows us to be creative and quick to respond to issues that crop up.”
The town is in good hands with Barnhart, a Pennsylvania native who worked in Stratford as the town manager before coming to Fairfield in 2002. Interestingly, he switched his career path while attending grad school at the University of Pennsylvania. “I thought of working for the U.S. Diplomatic Corps and even sat for the Foreign Service exam,’’ he said. “I decided to switch gears and focus on the local level. One of my professors was the former city manager of Cincinnati, and he made an impression on me. I thought more about working for local government and changed direction.”
Barnhart worked in New Jersey before the job in Stratford and has found a home working in Fairfield. He embraces the challenges and rewards that come with it.
“It’s a great community, a family friendly town with a vibrant downtown and an historic charm to it,’’ Barnhart said. “What I like about the job is there’s something new each and every day. It’s not the same old routine. It’s a great opportunity to be creative and respond to what you see as the needs of Fairfield. You have limited resources working with a small budget. It’s a great challenge.”
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