NORWALK, Conn. – On one hand, Democratic mayoral candidate Matt Miklave might be seen as part of Norwalk’s political establishment. The District A Common Councilman has spent nearly eight years on the council – 2001 to 2007 and 2011 to present – and has been a part of the decision-making process for eight municipal budgets.
On the other hand, Miklave is portraying himself as someone who can bring new ideas, new accountability and new energy to City Hall, and he says city voters believe that is just what is needed.
“I think Norwalk is looking for change,” he said Wednesday night in an interview with NancyOnNorwalk. “I think the overwhelming majority of voters look at the current administration and know they have to change it.”
And what might that change look like?
Move over, performance-based budgeting. Time to share the spotlight with economic accelerators.
The idea is not new. Miklave has talked about it before, but the focus has been more on using the performance-based budgeting technique to get a grip on the city’s growing tax rate. But, while other candidates talk about “growing the grand list” and lobbying the state for more money, Miklave wants to try something more innovative as an economic plan.
Miklave said his plan for economic incubators would address how to attract other types of businesses to the area. “Look, I’m a free market guy, I believe in capitalism, it’s the greatest economic engine for job creation in the history of the world. What we need to do is emulate what other cities have done – Asheville, N.C., Beaverton, Ore. and Boulder, Colo.”
Miklave focused on Asheville, a city of close to 84,000 people in western North Carolina’s mountains that regularly turns up on magazine “best” lists for everything from its natural beauty to being one of the 25 best places for business and careers (Forbes, 2012).
“At the height of the recession, in 2008, they went to the downtown business district in Asheville and they created economic accelerators that were in harmony with their community,” Miklave said. “Asheville has a homegrown brewery economic accelerator. So they have all these micro breweries that they’ve started downtown, and that’s led to an influx of capital, resources and investment in the community. So my idea, on the first day in office, I would designate an economic accelerator team that would meet on a regular basis and help find plans and policies to form a series of economic accelerators that are in harmony with our community.”
The first – a “no-brainer,” he said – would be a hospitality industry accelerator “because it’s in keeping with Washington Street, what we’re already known for.”
He said the accelerator might include an office for a number of entrepreneurs to set up and exchange ideas and feed off each other’s creative energy, much like an artist community.
“… I‘ve already had talks with NCC (Norwalk Community College) about moving their culinary institute to South Norwalk so they’d be in combination with the accelerator,” he said. “It puts foot traffic on Washington Street at the same time with the same concept. So now maybe we have a knock-off restaurant, a place where an entrepreneur can try their goods in a place, see how the public likes them. So, if you’re working on Washington Street and you want to go to lunch, maybe you go into this café where, every day, the entrepreneur has a different whatever that you are able to sample and try and give feedback to.”
He said that he envisions programs that would bring top chefs to the accelerator, and maybe TV programs. He said grants are available for this kind of economic program, and that the hospitality accelerator would be just the first step. Technology would be another, he said. He said $30,000 grants are available for companies involved in this type of thing, meaning 10 companies enrolled in a technology accelerator would get $300,000 in grants.
“Now that’s seed money for them… That’s a jumpstart on new technology.”
“It’s so out of the box. And maybe it only has a 50 percent chance of success, but if it works, we got something nobody else in New England (is doing).”
But big box development?
“Big box stores are wrong for three reasons,” Miklave said.
“First of all, it’s the lowest tax revenue per square foot you can get for any economic development you put into the city. Secondly,” he said, “big box stores tend to have part-time, low paying, no-benefit jobs, some of the worst jobs you can have for an economic development project. And third, they put traffic on the street all at the same time – all during rush hours. So for those three reasons, big box stores are just a really a bad economic development program. And we need some of them, there’s no question about it. But we have enough. I don’t think we need to encourage more to come to Norwalk. I don’t want to be known as the Big Box Capital of Connecticut.”
Miklave was responding to a series of question NancyOnNorwalk asked of all theDemocratic mayoral candidates in advance of the Sept. 10 primary election. Andy Garfunkel, Vinny Mangiacopra and Harry Rilling each responded and their answers can be found by clicking on their names above.
Miklave’s enthusiasm for economic accelerators was an extension of his reply to the next question, which was naming three things he would have cut or reduced in this year’s city budget.
Miklave said it would be unfair to cut anything without implementing performance-based budgeting to see what is working and what is not.
“We don’t have any performance standards now. We need to first adopt standards for programs, judge them, then give them a chance to succeed or fail,” he said. “We need to give them a chance to perform up to the standards we have set. It’s unfair to cut programs without giving them a chance to succeed. I will make decisions based upon performance, not based upon political calculations.”
Questions were raised in recent weeks about Mayor Richard Moccia’s choices for board and committee appointments, and whether it was wise to not reappointment people with expertise specific to the committee’s mission in favor of bring in “new blood” with new perspectives but no specific expertise.
Miklave said both types of people are needed.
“I would make an aggressive effort to reach out to the community, but I’m also going to be looking for talent,” he said. “We have a lot of talent in this community. That’s one of the reasons I called for a nationwide search for a new police chief, something that Chief Rilling opposed. I called for a nationwide search because I think Norwalkers can compete nationally with anybody. I don’t think we’re disadvantaged. And I note that Chief Rilling condemned a nationwide search for a new police chief at the same time he was a finalist in a nationwide search for police chief in Newport, R.I. I have a problem with that.”
He said he is comfortable with the idea of the Norwalk Housing Authority competing with Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now (NEON) to run the Head Start program, but he then threw up a caution flag.
“The Norwalk Housing Authority could be a good provider of Head Start,” he said. “I’m a little concerned that it’s not related to its central mission, so I have some concerns … The mission of the NHA is to provide low-income housing opportunities – there’s a critical need for that – not education support services. I get a little concerned when an agency or corporation that has a defined mission starts to stray off it that mission. I call it a lack of focus. The day McDonald’s, for instance, starts selling shrimp, sell your stock. The world has ended as we know it.”
Asked about the damage negative campaigning could do to the eventual nominee for the general election, Miklave agreed it is a concern.
“You always have to be concerned with that. Any time you have an election there can be bad blood. I think we have an advantage here in Norwalk, because I do believe we all like each other as people,” Miklave said. “That’s a good start. I disagree with each of my opponents to varying degrees based on matters of policy, based on implementation and some philosophical issues I have with them.”
Miklave said he will vote for whoever the nominee is, but he also expressed some concerns
“I’m comfortable whoever the Democratic nominee is as long as they run a real campaign based on change. I do have a problem with some of the promises; that is, when politicians think they can promise the world and they don’t have to explain it. That’s when I think voters say that you’re just a typical politician. So I’m concerned that if my opponents go too far down that road – and I am concerned that they’ve already started going down that road – that even if they get the nomination they may not be successful.”