Matt Mandell, Executive Director of Westport Weston Chamber of Commerce offered Y’s Men an overview of the Chamber and discussed some of its programs and accomplishments last Thursday.
Mandell is a 12 year member of the Representative Town Meeting and an open space and historic preservationist — saving, moving and rehabbing the Kemper-Gunn house is probably his most visible success.
As an RTM member he became the spirit and organizer of Slice of Saugatuck, a community-wide open house and street festival that will celebrate its sixth year this September.
These and numerous other accomplishments led the Chamber of offer him its leadership position two and one-half years ago.
Today, in addition to his Chamber duties, he sits on the Downtown Plan Steering Committee and the recently initiated Saugatuck Transit Oriented Development Study Committee, which he prefers to call the “Saugatuck Neighborhood Study.”
Since taking over he has doubled the Chamber’s membership and continues to create programs to get Westporters to “spend your money here in Westport.”
He wants to bring back the mom and pop stores that made Main Street a shopping mecca long before the national chains discovered the halo effect a loss leader showcase in Westport confers. A return to locally owned businesses, Mandell said, will yield more business owners more interested in supporting their home town.
Among his successes is October’s Restaurant Week, which has helped make Westport’s restaurant scene as vibrant as those of Norwalk and Fairfield.
And the Chamber held its first Dog Festival last June at Winslow Park. It drew 1,500 people and 400 dogs to a day of competitions, police dog demonstrations, and an opportunity for 60 businesses to present themselves to dog owners and lovers alike.
While decrying the impact the rise online shopping is having on brick and mortar retail — Chico’s and Sperry recently closed — he also called the 95/7 Mall under construction in Norwalk a “bump in the road” for Westport. Its plans include 700,000 sq ft of retail space, with anchors including Bloomingdales and Nordstrom’s and some 400 other establishments. The good news is that its opening has been delayed again, now to late 2019.
Against it, Westport offers a walkable, open air shopping district with ample parking. The Chamber and the Downtown Merchants Association are working together to seek additional benefits to shopping in Westport.
More broadly, he’s patched up the relationship with the DMA so they now support each other. The Blues, Views and Barbecue Festival is one example. It brings 6,000 people into town over Labor Day weekend to enjoy the festival and learn about Westport. “I think I’ll come back. That’s what it’s about.”
Another preservation project, and a part of the Chamber’s work to make Saugatuck a more significant part of Westport is what seems a near crusade to maintain the Cribari Bridge. Built in 1884, it is the oldest swing bridge in the state, and in need of repair.
The state DOT says “it doesn’t meet specs.” They want to widen it and increase its height to enable 18 wheelers to use it to escape stalled traffic between Exits 17 and 18.
Mandell believes it is important to protect the bridge and avoid turning Greens Farms Road into a Route 95 service road.
Photo by Larry Untermeyer