The town’s new Economic Development Commission (EDC) chairman plans to focus on promoting Monroe as an attractive place to do business.
“We need to come up new ideas to help our existing businesses in town and to help the first selectman in his efforts to attract new businesses,” said Roberto Perez.
Perez was elected chairman of the seven-member EDC at a recent meeting, replacing Lee Hossler, who had led the commission for three years.
The vote was not without some controversy, with some Hossler supporters saying it was orchestrated by First Selectman Stephen J. Vavrek.
Does Vavrek have time for the position?
Some have criticized Vavrek for not regularly attending EDC meetings despite serving as the town’s voluntary economic development coordinator. The critics say Vavrek is wearing one hat too many, and he can’t devote adequate time to expanding the commercial tax base.
However, Perez said he thinks Vavrek has worked well with businesses. “I can’t complain about the job he’s done,” said Perez, adding he thinks the commission “can help him out a lot.”
There also has been ongoing political tension on whether to have a paid economic development coordinator, as Monroe once did. Hossler supports hiring a coordinator while Perez takes a more reserved approach.
Perez said the town’s financial situation, with its budget limitations, must be considered before putting another employee on the municipal payroll. “In a perfect world we could bring someone in,” he said.
Perez has been EDC vice chairman for the past year and a commissioner for three years. He runs a food service company that operates a corporate cafeteria in Bridgeport.
He thinks the town has been making economic progress, despite the challenging economy.
“We’ve had success with businesses in town expanding and new businesses coming in,” Perez said. “We need to keep the ball rolling.”
One plus will be the revised zoning regulations now being finalized by the Planning and Zoning Commission, Perez said. “Some of the regulations we’ve had on the books have tied the hands of existing businesses,” he said.
Meeting behavior questioned
At the EDC meeting where Perez was voted in as chairman, Vavrek did make an appearance to speak but then left.
Hossler said he had planned to run again for chairman and after initially securing the needed commitments of support, he later found out he didn’t have the votes.
Hossler is an unaffiliated voter, and Vavrek is a Republican.
Hossler said Vavrek was sharply critical of the EDC during comments he made at the meeting. “He just berated us,” Hossler said.
Town Council member Nick Kapoor, a Democrat who frequently clashes with Vavrek, said he was “disappointed with the first selectman’s behavior” at the EDC meeting. He accused Vavrek of belittling volunteer commission members.
Speaking at a Town Council meeting, Kapoor said he wanted to take the opportunity to properly thank Hossler for his service in public.
After Kapoor’s comments, Vavrek also publicly thanked Hossler for his years leading the EDC. He said he hadn’t “reprimand[ed] anyone” at the EDC meeting but did point out some places where he felt the EDC needed to improve, such as its social network presence and communication skills.
Vavrek said he wants active members on the EDC and all boards. “We need people on our boards who do their jobs. I think the public wants that,” he said.
Former EDC Commissioner Steven Schapiro also has defended Hossler and questioned Vavrek’s economic development role.
At the recent Town Council meeting, Schapiro challenged the accuracy of comments by Vavrek that only 16 towns in Connecticut have paid economic development directors.
Schapiro said the mayor or first selectman serves as economic development director in fewer than one-third of the 169 towns in Connecticut.
He pointed out that most towns near Monroe have paid directors, including Newtown, Shelton and Trumbull, adding these are the very towns that have “boxed in” Monroe with all their successful commercial development.
Coordinator could pay for itself
Hossler said a paid economic development coordinator would secure grants for economic projects — such as sprucing up commercial corridors — as well as work with the business community.
A coordinator who made $40,000 to $50,000, perhaps on a part-time basis, would more than pay for his or her salary by getting one major grant, he said.
Hossler is expected to decide this week whether to stay on the EDC. He’s been a member for a decade but is unsure if his continued presence would be productive. “I still want to be involved in this town,” he said.
Perez said he hopes Hossler will remain on the commission. “He’s an asset to the town,” Perez said. “I hope people understand how hard he has worked and all the effort he has put in.”