Norwalk council candidates address issue of big box jobs

NORWALK, Conn. – Low-paying jobs that lead to the exodus of young Norwalkers was one of the topics bandied about by Common Council candidates last week in East Norwalk.

With the withdrawal of the application to build a BJ’s Wholesale Club on Main Avenue fresh on everyone’s minds, Republican Norwalk Police Commissioner Pete Torrano asked about the assertion that big box stores do not provide good jobs.

“Norwalk has a large number of unskilled workers,” he said. “What exactly are these better jobs that the unskilled workers in Norwalk can fill?”

Four candidates chose to respond.

Democrat Sharon Stewart, a social worker from District B, said there are plenty of opportunities for workforce training in Norwalk.

“Big box stores are hiring people to make $9.50 an hour, or $8.50,” she said. “The 2003 census told everybody that for a single person with no children to survive in Norwalk, you need to make $23 an hour. With that said, how can you expect a family of three or four children to actually do anything other than collect welfare and collect food stamps? There’s nothing else for them to do.”

Common Council President Doug Hempstead, a Republican, said it’s about finding balance and smart growth. The Stew Leonard’s vice president said he isn’t opposed to big box stores. He has asked around, he said, and found that some Costco cashiers get $7,000 bonuses.

“I think it’s having the right companies come to town,” he said. “… If you go back 20 years, everybody was against big office buildings in Norwalk, too, at one point. That’s kind of how we wound up with Route 1, because everybody was opposing, they didn’t want Merritt 7 on Route 1.”

A mix of high-paying professional jobs and jobs for unskilled workers is the reason Norwalk has a Triple A bond rating, he said.

Democrat Warren Peña, 33, running for re-election after his first term as a councilman, agreed Norwalk needs balance.

“All I’m hearing from my peer group around here is it’s just too expensive around here,” he said. “There’s just no jobs that pay us well enough. So where are they going? Moving up north where it’s cheaper. Getting out of Norwalk, where they actually love.”

Bruce Kimmel, an incumbent Democratic councilman running as a Republican-endorsed candidate, expounded a bit, without focusing on jobs.

“The issue with BJ’s is that it was too large,” he said. “It was on a Superfund site and not a brownfield site. Superfund sites can never be fully remediated. It’s a few blocks away from the Norwalk River. The environmental reports were never released. We knew traffic would be exacerbated despite what the consultants were saying, and we did find out the consultants did have reservations.”

He agreed with Hempstead – times change.

“The problem we have today traffic-wise on Connecticut Avenue is because, when it was being developed, the West Norwalk Association and other associations fought vehemently for big box stores.”


20 responses to “Norwalk council candidates address issue of big box jobs”

  1. piberman

    BJ’s application became a public protest precisely because lack of public confidence in the P&Z. Years ago we had public protests before the BOE. With a revitalized BOE under new leadership the public now has confidence sans protests. Unlike the BOE the P&Z members are appointed by the Common Council. To improve public confidence in the P&Z the Council needs to do its homework by appointing stronger P&Z members. Common Council members do not pontificate about BOE decisions. Why not the same stance with P&Z ? Unless they are looking for votes. Had they done their job properly and appointed a more credible P&Z the public would not have needed to protest. The basic issue here is lack of public confidence in the P&Z. Rather than grandstand Councilmen Hempstead and Kimmel – with decades of experience behind them – ought to stick to their knitting and bring about a P&Z that has public confidence. Its their responsibility. Common Councilmen were not elected to make P&Z decisions. Lets encourage them to make much stronger P&Z appointments with the leadership that commands public respect and admiration.

  2. EveT

    So what’s the answer about better paying jobs? Among the comments from the candidates in this article I don’t see any actual answers.

  3. dianelauricella

    Quick thoughts:
    @piberman The Mayor puts forth the names, and the Council “annoints” thru their vote. I agree that the Council should demand more time to ask questions, but the Mayor refuses to do so. I have suggested that all candidates to appointed positions be given a questionnaire far in advance of the Council vote or that interviews occur. Food for thought.
    The P & Z Department includes the separate and distinct Planning Commission and the Zoning Commission, in addition to several other Commissions where they have staff and administrative functions. One need only attend a Committee-level meeting of any of these Commissions to see that there is a lack of due diligence by some of the staff and a too-heavy reliance by too many of the appointed commissioners to listen to the applicants’ “experts” instead of drilling down and doing their own research…in fact, some of the staff sometimes browbeat commissioners that have the audacity to ask questions that do not fall in line with administration plans.

  4. dianelauricella

    Quicker Thought: I believe Mr. Torrano should be identified as a long-time RTC member in this good article, since others were so identified. Please do not believe that the words that left his lips at this forum were not part of the RTC script. Jus’ sayin’.

  5. M Allen

    @diane – Wasn’t he identified as “Republican Norwalk Police Commissioner Pete Torrano”? Or did that come between your post at 10:41 am and monine at 11:58 am?

    1. Mark Chapman

      @ M Allen
      Mr. Torrano was identified as “Republican Norwalk Police Commissioner” in the original story. When we make changes in stories, we note it as an update or correction at the top of the story.

  6. M Allen

    ““The 2003 census told everybody that for a single person with no children to survive in Norwalk, you need to make $23 an hour.” – Sharon Stewart
    Not all jobs are going to be “bread winner” jobs. Sometimes a part-time job is just that. It was never intended to be something to survive on. Unfortunatley, the current situation is what it is for a whole host of reasons, and getting worse as more part time jobs become the norm. But If you can have 100 part-time jobs earning a minimum wage or 0 jobs earning no wage, I think we may need to side with 100 jobs earning the government-mandated minuimum. There are people who need those jobs and to say they should get better training to improve themselves, isn’t the only answer. There are a lot of college-educated workers who aren’t getting value for their education, let alone unskilled or low-skilled workers not being paidn enough. And if your target is $23 an hour then there are going to be a lot of disappointed people fighting for something that is not ever going to happen. The current minimum wage may in fact be too low for this area and this state as a whole. So get the number changed. Don’t use it as an excuse to keep out a potential employer who will in fact fill those jobs with people eager to add to their incomes. Not every position meets the need of every worker. But who are any of you to decide which job is worthy of a worker’s effort?

  7. M Allen

    @ Mark – That’s what I thought, to the point that I even went and looked for the note you would normally post at the top of the article. But thank you for the clarification.

    (Editor’s note: Always happy to clarify or explain.)

  8. M Allen

    The more I read the quotes of some of those who are against national retailers like BJs, the more I am aghast at how out of touch their reality is. What fairy tale economy are you living in? It isn’t just BJ’s. Every single time you approach someone in the retail or service-sector industries in Norwalk, you really need to ask yourself whether those people are making anywhere near enough to support themselves in a place like Norwalk. Reatilers, banks, the person selling you your $7 coffee… even in most businesses that as part of an entry-level role require education and skills. What do you think these people are making? It may not be minimum wage, but it probably isn’t a wage capable of supporting an individual in Norwalk. Not unless “capable of supporting” is they live at home with their parents or 4 to an apartment and eat Ramen noodles. So how to you justify unskilled or low-skilled workers making more if those with skills and education are struggling?
    As for providing skill training: assume a worker improves their skills and are no longer considered unskilled. Is a job invented for them? Where is this magical new job paying enough for them to live on? The fact is job creation is not very healthy, let alone jobs that are full-time with pay and benefits that can support living in this area. I am not making the case for minimum wage jobs as some kind of godsend. They aren’t. But you really need to start considering the entire pay scale for this area. On a polulation basis it is skewed toward the lower-end of the curve. It is sad to say, but when one takes into account the pay for entry-level roles that require skills and education, then minimum wage for jobs at BJ’s probably isn’t out of line. Again, the pay may be low, but low pay has got to be better than no pay, especially for those willing to do the work. I won’t even get into the insanity that says living on the dole, trapped in the social safety net, should ever pay more than taking a job. I’ll just leave it at: we shouldn’t judge a business like BJ’s based on its pay scale. On a comparative basis, its not terribly far off most other buinesses you frequent regularly.

  9. Oldtimer

    Big box stores are not now seen as good bets. Big chains are closing a lot of stores. Costco is an exception and is growing, taking market share from some well known chains. The attached article gives a business insider perspective.


  10. Oldtimer

    Pete Torrano is a retired Norwalk Police officer and probably the first police officer ever named to the police commission.

  11. M Allen

    @Oldtimer – nothing is now seen as a good bet. The shelf life of most retailers is pretty grim as competition is no longer local. The internet is everywhere and it is always open for business. So in the end, what is a good bet outside of grocery stores?

  12. Oldtimer

    M Allen (Matty)
    I am no authority on business futures in this area, but I question the wisdom of investing in a membership shopping store at this time. Costco, known for how well it treats employees, seems to be the only big box chain with a bright near future, if Business Week knows anything.

  13. Norwalk Spectator

    Aside from the fact that I oppose BJ’s because of the location, I do have some concerns about low paying jobs.
    First of all, a number of companies are releasing their employees from their health care programs and telling them to enroll in the health care exchanges. Home Depot comes to mind, but they are not the only ones.
    Secondly, other companies are reducing their employee hours, or closing stores. Darden Restaurants (Olive Garden and Red Lobster) have publicaly stated they will cut back on employee hours. They are not the only ones.
    Low wages??? How about being grateful to just have a job at all?
    Even those people who have jobs with good salaries are finding out that the health care issues are eating away at their earnings.
    These are all national issues, not just Norwalk issues. If Norwalk has an opportunity to bring in more jobs that will allow people to work, I’m good. It’s nice to talk about livings wages and job skills, but it’s even better if people can find employment.

  14. M Allen

    @Spectator – you are absolutely correct. It is nice to talk about living wages, but sometimes we need to just talk about a job. Those who don’t like the minimum wage should take that up with the Governor and the Democratic controlled legislature. That is where you get the minimum wage increased. You don’t try and ban the companies who are operating within the law.
    Nor is it helpful to compare one warehouse market to another. Costco is better to its employees. So what? If I beat my dog twice a day or beat it only once, does that make me a caring owner? The fact is that neither pays enough to survive as a primary source of income in an area like Fairfield County Connecticut.
    In the end, we have many workers who will gladly take these jobs in order to provide additional income to their families. The fact that we have an entire caste of people who would rather sit and collect a government check than do any work whatsoever, is an entirely different matter. But hey, it makes sense. Insofar as we taxpayers have made it more lucrative to do so.

  15. Suzanne

    M Allen, please find out what making a government check “more lucrative” means, as in the value of accepting social services and welfare over working a minimum wage job in Fairfield, CT. Otherwise, your comments don’t stand up. People accepting welfare over finding a job, the “entire caste” you mention, is not unusual and, in fact, has existed for generations. Those who MUST be on welfare now because of lack of employment opportunities is another story.

  16. RU4REEL

    Why don’t we ask the people that may apply for these jobs what they think? Not the politicians and in fact if you check for yourselves, many of these employees don’t live in Norwalk.

  17. M Allen

    My comments do stand up Suzanne, unless you simply don’t want them to stand. I’m not sure I claimed that the existence of the welfare caste was anything new. We’re all pretty aware that it has not only existed for generations, but has propagated itself to become multi-generational. My point was that minimum wage jobs are less lucrative than government benefits in many cases. Thus we have individuals who will “wisely” choose to take the higher paying path. How we have allowed that path to exist is beyond me, but so be it. Anyway, no real point in arguing this here as its very much heading into tangent land and doesn’t further any conversation about whether minimum wage jobs are better than no jobs at all. The answer is: not if you can claim a government check. Right?

  18. Suzanne

    I don’t know: I don’t know how a government check compares to a minimum wage job. This is my point and something you should elucidate. Otherwise, there is no support for your opinions.

  19. Piberman

    One means of improving P&Z governance is to have transcripts of meetings on the City’s web site together with submitted documents by applicants and their consultants. Another is to post brief summaries of Commissioner’s bios. Clearly P&Z can’t gain public confidence if Councilman Hempstead’s dictum that in Norwalk anyone can serve on any commission or board is faithfully followed. The extraordinary success of the BOE in gaining public confidence reflects in part the unusual professional capabilities of its Chair. Can P&Z be similarly successful without an exceptionally qualified Chair. Ot is just politics required to get an appointment ?

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