Fairfield, Conn., Project Will Include Retail, Transit, Hotel Facilities

Oct. 12--When it comes to fostering economic growth in Fairfield County, there needs to be a partnership between public officials, quasi-public agencies and private developers.

That was the main theme of a luncheon yesterday at the Woodway Country Club in Darien, sponsored by Wittek Development and Rugby Realty Co., developers of a $250 million train station and mixed-use commercial complex in Fairfield.

The Fairfield Metro Center, scheduled to open in 2008, will include a train station, retail pavilion, fitness center, 180-room Hilton hotel, restaurants and 800,000- square-feet of commercial office space. The two developers, jointly known as Blackrock Realty LLC, hosted the event in part to drum up support for the project and also to promote their concept that economic growth in Connecticut can only be accomplished through collaboration.

The 100 attendees included local government officials, corporate leaders, commercial real estate brokers, developers and quasi-public housing and economic agencies.

These groups need to start a dialogue and begin strategically thinking about the type of development that will promote growth in the region, said Kurt Wittek, president of Westport-based Wittek Development. "This area is not growing," Wittek said. "A recent study by the Federal Reserve had Connecticut last in the country in terms of job growth." Transportation and infrastructure problems, coupled with high housing costs, are driving companies out, he said.

Stamford, once a magnet for corporations, is now losing them, he said. And the last speculative office building constructed in Stamford was in 1990. "Clearly Stamford is not looked upon today as the desirable place to be as it once was," Wittek said.

Even the Royal Bank of Scotland's recent decision to move to Stamford had more to do with its competition with Swiss rival UBS than it did about Stamford's desirability, Wittek said. RBS plans to locate its U.S. headquarters across the street from the U.S. home of UBS Investment Bank. To counter these problems, Fairfield County should focus on what's known in the industry as "smart development" -- development that makes life more livable for people, Wittek said. That means bringing transportation, commercial space, housing and retail right to where people already live and work.

He points to Greenwich Plaza and Stamford Metro Center -- complexes similar to Blackrock's Fairfield Metro Center in their location next to major railroad stations -- as examples.

"In good markets and bad, these properties have high rates and high occupancy," he said.

But U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Bridgeport, who also spoke to the group, said that Fairfield County is still desirable and RBS chose Stamford because of that.

"They came to Stamford for market reasons. They are literally right next door to the railroad station," said Shays.

Shays said he is supportive of smart development. "We want people to live where they work ? We want the transit to take people right where they work," said Shays who encouraged the audience to embrace the idea of more cooperation "It's one coast, it is one future," Shays said. "There are such great possibilities. We are not in conflict with each other." Also speaking at the event yesterday were Christopher Bruhl, president and chief executive officer of the Stamford-based Business Council of Fairfield County, and Udaya Patnaik of Jump Associates, a consultancy that helps entities identify growth opportunities.