It’s not uncommon for big cities to rely on local universities for expertise and resources on economic development issues. It’s rare for a smaller town to have the same luxury.
Fairfield officials are touting work with the town’s pair of universities, Sacred Heart and Fairfield U., that officials have increasingly turned to for the kind of partnerships a town of 60,000 people can’t usually muster.
“The universities are tremendous resources, and to some extent we haven’t in the past fully leveraged the talent and expertise that exists there,” said Mark Barnhart, who heads the town’s economic development department. “Both the universities and the town have had good working relationships over the years, but we’ve worked even more closely in the more recent past.”
Growth on both campuses also provides a benefit to the town, officials said, and the schools have been busy in that regard.
“Both universities have been going through fairly intensive capital campaign,” Barnhart said. “It’s been a very positive development for the town.”
The Borders factor
A closer collaboration between the town and Fairfield University sprang from what could have been a disaster: the closing of a major downtown business.
When Borders Group, at the time the second-biggest U.S. bookstore chain, filed for bankruptcy in 2011, it left holes in shopping centers and strip malls across the nation. In Fairfield, it meant a downtown vacancy.
Al and Ken Kleban, the Post Road commercial structure’s owners, didn’t wait long to look for a replacement.
“The Klebans had a vacancy with Borders leaving, and it made a lot of sense pitching the idea to Fairfield U. to put its bookstore downtown,” Barnhart said. “You see it often in other college towns. In New Haven, the Yale bookstore is a Barnes & Noble. The concept made a lot of sense, and it came to pass.”
By November 2011, the university bookstore was open. It not only filled a hole, but brought the university off its campus and into the center of town.
Above the bookstore, Fairfield U. launched its next major development enterprise, the Fairfield University Accelerator & Mentoring Enterprise. Barnhart again credited property owner Ken Kleban. “Ken came across similar concepts elsewhere where towns were working with local universities on a center for entrepreneurs. He said, ‘What do you think?’ And we thought, ‘why wouldn’t we want to do something like that?’ ” Barnhart said.
Fairfield U. officials say the accelerator has already seen successes.
“We were approached about property in Fairfield above the bookstore on the Post Road,” said Don Gibson, dean of the Dolan School of Business at Fairfield U. “The idea is to encourage young startups and provide mentoring from faculty at the university, connect with alumni and take advantage of resources available in town.
FAME, as it is known, launched in October 2013. Since then, about 10 companies have come through the shared 1,300-square-foot workspace, working to turn their ideas into viable businesses and, ideally, create jobs in the community.
“We’d love if companies were able to incubate in Fairfield and then stayed in the town or region,” Gibson said. “We want it to contribute to this region, and the town has been very supportive of the enterprise.”
Probably the best-known business to come through the accelerator is SoccerGrlProbs, started by three former Fairfield U. soccer players who have turned an inside joke into a nationally known apparel company.
“They first created large Twitter and YouTube followings, and then turned that into an apparel business,” Gibson said, saying the company had revenue last year of about $200,000. The company’s founders made appearances at the Women’s World Cup this year.
“It will be very interesting to see what happens with them. They’ve benefited from FAME, and they’ve come a long way,” he said.
Not all companies will have that kind of success, which is the nature of the enterprise, Gibson said.
“We’re working with real startups,” he said. “Not all of them are going to turn into real companies. The idea is to provide that expertise so they can move along to continuum and get to the next stage.”
The accelerator, which is not limited to school-affiliated groups, is funded mostly through the university, but officials are looking for ways to raise more funding.
“The town has been very supportive,” Gibson said. “They want to see FAME do very well.”
He said the town is making good use of its available resources. “For a town of this size to have two active and growing universities, it’s terrific,” he said.
At Sacred Heart, the town has worked with groups of students looking for real-world experience performing research and making policy recommendations. It’s a mutually beneficial program, town and school officials say.
Valerie Christian, assistant professor in the John F. Welch College of Business, oversees students in the capstone program where master’s-level students work with nonprofit or government entities on real-world problems.
“At this level, they should have acquired skills to do us proud,” she said. “I work with the clients to make sure we understand what has to be done, and make sure it’s good for the client.”
The first capstone project with the town involved potential uses for the former Community Theatre downtown. Other projects have focused on the Fairfield Museum and Burr Homestead.
The most recent, and in many ways farthest-reaching, involved a study of ways to enhance downtown retail. Though by many standards thriving, many officials said they believed downtown was not reaching its potential, and the study was enacted to help move the neighborhood forward.
“It involved a survey presented to the town, as well as recommendations on how to position the retailing opportunities,” Christian said.
The survey revealed some useful findings, she said. While the local dining scene came in for high praise, retail offerings lack diversity, shoppers said.
“There was shown a need for men’s clothing and sporting goods,” she said. “We also found a great deal of confusion on where people could park. That was a huge constraint that came through.”
The research involved talking to shoppers about what they would like to see, as well as talking with business owners about how the town could better operate.
“There were a great deal of ideas, many based on things that came out of what other towns have done, which is to create events and create foot traffic,” Christian said. “People want to see that the main street doesn’t become all real estate offices and banks, that there is a real character and ambience to it.”
The recommendations were well received, Christian said, adding that the relationship with town government has been positive throughout the process.
Barnhart said the capstone projects provide the town with something it wouldn’t otherwise have.
“We don’t have the resources in house to do something like that,” he said. “It’s been both a very good learning experience for the students, as well as provided a good objective review for the town.”
Working with the universities goes beyond direct benefits, he said.
“We get the sense that this is all part of a broader community, and it really can be symbiotic, where we help one another out,” he said. “We’ve seen that our relationship with universities has grown in the last several years, and one thing has built on another. And we still think there is a lot of untapped potential there.”