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An Interview With Chris Spaulding, Part 3

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We recently sat down at length with First Selectman Chris Spaulding. We thought you would like to know a bit about him, his plans, and what he sees as Weston's opportunities and challenges. This is part 3 of 3 of our interview.

What do you see as your top challenges?

The State is always a challenge, and they have already reduced what we were getting by about $1 million. At the state level, businesses are becoming more skeptical about moving to Connecticut and deploying resources. That's obviously a challenge. All of our neighboring states have recovered from the recession by three or four hundred percent. Connecticut still hasn't gotten back to where we were before the recession.

There isn't much I can do about that, but Weston itself is in fantastic shape. Our finances are impeccable. Our pension liabilities are very well funded. We have very fiscally responsible and prudent stewardship of our finances.

Another challenge is that, for the past few years, there was a narrative that wasn't all that helpful, the one that says our schools are shrinking, that we need to adapt, and that we have all these problems. When I was a member of the Strategic Planning committee, at the very first meeting I said that we needed to stop talking about this committee being formed to fix a problem. We don't have a problem. We have an opportunity to figure out how to define Weston in a way that people can relate to.

At that time we had a precipitous drop in school enrollment. That wasn't a Weston issue. Millennials couldn't get jobs or couldn't afford houses or families. They stopped having kids so they stopped moving to this area, and house prices took a dive. Financing requirements changed, and for homes in this area, most people couldn't put down a 20 percent deposit after only working two or three years. This wasn't a trend, it was binary. And now we're building back up from it.

Millennials have a different mindset. We didn't have a lot of the things they were looking for, which was transportation, nightlife, and stuff like that. But we don't need to attract the vast majority of them. We need to attract those who, let's say, are living in Brooklyn, they've just had their first kid, or are about to, they're looking around the city and saying "look at this congestion, look at the speed of things, I work in an office but I can work at home, and where do I want to do that?"

If you're a writer or an artist, and like the idea of looking out the window and seeing a deer hanging out in your yard, you can't do that in a lot of places. If you want to hike trails or bike around empty roads, you can't do that in a lot of places.

So the decline in real estate prices wasn't just a Weston problem. Yes, Westport, New Canaan and Darien rebounded faster than us, but that's because they are closer to transportation hubs. We're certainly not doing great in real estate values. Our grand list was only up .06 percent last year. But I think some of the marketing things we can do make us appealing as sort of a niche kind of place people will talk about.

What sort of amenities do you have in mind?

Look at Lachat Town Farm. You don't get that kind of amenity everywhere. Everyone who goes there loves it. You get adults, you get children, you get food trucks and live music, and you get it all for free. It's a unique thing. To the extent we can find more unique things like Lachat, or the Historical Society with their great exhibitions, we can increase the town's appeal.

One thing we're looking at is maybe closing part of Valley Forge Road in the summer and just having it open for biking or rollerblading or pedestrians. New York City closes Central Park to automobiles on Sundays in the summer. Boston does the same with Storrow Drive. People just congregate for hours being healthy and exercising. Maybe we could try that. We might want to try something like having an annual bike race. You don't have to spend a lot of money. And you don't want to.

Look at the Memorial Day Fair. It's a remarkable thing, run entirely by the PTO. People go there with their children, and they make memories that last forever. We're looking at things like having a "Food Truck Friday" once a month in the summer. We've found that some of the biggest attractions, like when we had movie night under the stars, or Lachat Town Farm, is that people just love food trucks!

What kinds of things do you find encouraging?

Well, we can't do all these things alone, which is why the participation of all the various committees is so fantastic. I want this to be about open participation, have as many people involved as possible.

I'll give you some examples. When we started the year, the Board of Ethics had one member. Now we have a full quorum. A previous effort for a strategic marketing committee had three applicants in five months. It couldn't even be formed.

This year, our Marketing Advisory Committee was over-subscribed with applicants right from the start. The Commission on the Aging was over-subscribed. The Sustainability Committee is full, very active, and doing great work.

We haven't had that kind of volunteer effort in a while. We used to have to pull teeth to get people to sign up for stuff. Also, more people than ever are stepping up and wanting to run for office.

We can accomplish a lot because we're such a small town with such an exceptional volunteer force. In what other town can you get people like CEOs and CFOs at the top of their fields to volunteer their time? We could never afford to hire people like that. Our challenge is to keep them motivated and engaged.

I'm encouraged that so many young people are becoming engaged, and that there is a growing perception that participating in government is a good thing, and a fun thing, and that government is not something people have to hold in contempt or fight against. Maybe it's a New England thing. Small-town government is good for you. It's of the people and for the people.

The people we've selected for all the boards and committees are people who put the love of Weston over the love of power or prestige. And over party, for that matter. We work together in a very bipartisan way, and I think we're getting great results. So that's very, very encouraging.

I'd love to hear back from citizens whether they feel town government is a friendly thing, because that's the atmosphere I want us to have. It shouldn't seem scary or intimidating or convoluted. There are necessary checks and balances, so it's necessarily slow, but it's there to help.

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