Commentary: Downtown Shelton and economic stability

Over the past several years economic decline, rising unemployment and business failures have dominated the news.

We often look at problems of this magnitude as requiring national answers, but we don’t always notice the impact of local decisions — particularly those regarding land use and development.

A brief look at history paints a very clear picture of just how important local land-use decisions are when it comes to building and maintaining a strong local economy — even in trying times.

Thoughtful, balanced development in Shelton today will impact our economic prosperity for decades.

Comparing Cleveland and Detroit

Cities like Cleveland and Detroit are two excellent yet contrasting examples. Forty years ago, both cities had a rich economy built on a foundation of heavy industry. Both cities watched as that very focused economy eroded in the 1960s and '70s, leaving poverty and crime in their wake.

While Cleveland has seen a resurgence, Detroit recently filed for bankruptcy. But why did they fail and why has only one city rebounded?

A look at land-use decisions and economic development helps to give us an answer.

'Tremendous economies'

Often, our greatest strength becomes our greatest weakness. Cleveland and Detroit built tremendous economies dependent on the success of manufacturing firms.

Detroit, of course, was the automobile manufacturing capital of the world. Similarly, Cleveland based its entire economy on the success or failure of the heavy industrial sector.

Detroit began to suffer as foreign-made automobiles took hold among American buyers while Cleveland’s foundries saw jobs flee to more cost-effective regions of the country.

Both cities struggled for decades and while Cleveland has made a significant comeback, Detroit still hasn’t found its place in the global economy.

Both cities had linked their economic success to one sector of the economy. When that sector began to suffer, the cities suffered along with it.

If you worked in those cities, you worked in a plant or for a company that served one of those plants. If you owned a restaurant, your customers were factory workers. If you owned an apartment building, your tenants labored making cars or steel.

There was no balance in either city’s economy. When their manufacturing economy failed, so did their downtown areas.

Survival via economic diversity

That is the common thread — balance. A local economy survives when its job base and residential opportunities are diverse — when the failure of one does not mean the failure of all.

Cleveland has built itself a rich economy with firms in healthcare, finance, biotech and alternative energy, while a growing residential and retail presence has sprung up to support those firms. When faced with failing factories, Cleveland responded by zoning for offices, courting new firms to occupy them, and creating residential opportunities that were appealing to young employees with disposable income.

Detroit, in contrast, has done none of that. With neither creativity nor an adaptive spirit, Detroit’s political leaders are too late to the party. Detroit has been losing jobs and population for decades and as of June of this year, the city’s unemployment rate is 16%.

Opportunity in downtown Shelton

These contrasting lessons relate directly to the future of our own downtown area. Bridgeport Avenue has been the engine of our economic success, but open land is disappearing. Opportunities are shrinking.

Downtown, however, will be our next economic development frontier. Our ability to develop it smartly today will generate the economic strength for the next thirty years.

The long-term answer is to zone for residential properties and retail establishments that will be supported by our diverse businesses in Shelton. This will prepare our city for economic excellence in good times and economic stability in bad.

Jason Perillo is a state representative serving Shelton in Hartford. He may be reached at 800-842-8700 or