TechHub Hosts Fireside Chat with Stamford Mayor Simmons

NEWS COVERAGE:

Stamford Advocate 12.16.2021

Fairfield County Business Journal 12.24.2021

 

Stamford Advocate

How are Stamford schools perceived? Can the city keep business booming? Mayor Simmons shares her thoughts

By Brianna Gurciullo

Mayor Caroline Simmons spoke about promoting schools, the city’s business environment and more during a wide-ranging “fireside chat” Wednesday as she enters her third week as Stamford’s top elected official. Stamford Partnership’s TechHub held the discussion at Third Place by Half Full Brewery, which is where Simmons and her campaign team celebrated the night she was elected mayor.

Here are a few highlights from Simmons’ hourlong conversation with George Boyce, the owner of a State Farm Insurance agency in Stamford.

Schools’ ‘perception challenge’

Audience member Doug Burke, a local businessman and husband of Stamford Board of Education member Jennienne Burke, asked Simmons about the reputation of the city’s schools and how public perception of them could be changed. Simmons — who, as mayor, is a nonvoting member of the Board of Education — acknowledged that Stamford’s school system has a “perception challenge” and said the city needs to “do a much better job of marketing our schools.

“We have incredible teachers, incredible programs at our schools,” Simmons said. “We have graduates of our high schools who went on to Ivy League schools. We have incredible successes that we should be proud of.”

The city should also highlight its international population, she added: Going to school with classmates who speak different languages is “a strength that’s going to prepare our students to be successful in a global economy.”

Simmons then turned to the schools’ aging buildings, saying Stamford officials met with state officials in recent days as the city seeks funding for a new Westhill High School.

She said that improving the rankings of Stamford’s schools should also be a priority. “Parents are looking at that when they’re choosing where to settle down,” Simmons said.

‘One-stop-shop’ for businesses

 Simmons said she wants to create a new one-stop shop similar to an existing state website for people wading through the permitting process and taking other steps to establish a business in the city.

The city already has a website billed as a “one-stop shop,” but Simmons said what she is picturing would take “the Amazon customer service approach, where you can go to Amazon and you can get everything you need with one login, one ID.”

For instance, business owners could log in and see the status of their permit applications — similar to how people track their orders from Amazon, she said.

She said her administration is also taking a look at the city’s permitting process, which for some businesses can take up to a year and a half to complete. “To get your permit to start up, it has to get signed by five or six different offices,” Simmons said. “The flow doesn’t necessarily make sense.”

During their campaigns, Simmons’ general election opponent, Bobby Valentine, floated the idea of creating a “concierge service” to help entrepreneurs start up a business and stay open.

A ‘silver lining’ of the pandemic

Speaking about Stamford’s population boom and its growing corporate community, Simmons said “one of the silver linings of this pandemic is that smaller cities like Stamford are now really competing” with the likes of New York City and Boston for attracting companies.

Still, with Stamford’s commercial vacancy rate around 30 percent, Simmons said her administration is “looking at how we can market our commercial spaces and proactively recruit businesses.”

Tech ‘vulnerabilities’

 Another question that came from the audience was: “What’s already keeping you up at night?”

Other than the times when her two young sons have woken her up, Simmons said she had trouble sleeping when a snowstorm was expected to hit Stamford — “then, luckily, it was barely a flurry.”

She also said the “vulnerabilities of our IT infrastructure” have been on her mind. Before his term as mayor ended, David Martin appointed Stamford’s first chief information officer, Izzy Sobkowski, who is overseeing an overhaul of the city’s financial system.

“If anything gets disrupted in that, it could mean a disruption in city services, so we’re getting constant reports and monitoring the progress of upgrading our software and our IT,” Simmons said.

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Fairfield County Business Journal

Stamford Mayor Simmons speaks to city’s future in ‘fireside chat’

By Justin McGown

Stamford Mayor Caroline Simmons made her first public remarks since her swearing in at a Dec. 15 “Fireside Chat” hosted by the Stamford Partnership’s TechHub program and sponsored by commercial realty company George Comfort & Sons.

The chat was held in a tightly packed room at the rear of Half-Full Brewing’s Third Place, a coworking space, which was hailed as symbolic of the city’s growth by both Simmons and her interlocutor George Boyce, owner of the Stamford State Farm insurance agency and an executive board member of Stamford Downtown.

Seated in front of active brewing equipment and a “virtual” fireplace in the form of a television playing a loop of a log fire, Simmons and Boyce discussed both her first 10 days in office and the city’s future while surrounded by a crowd composed of entrepreneurs and members of the Stamford Partnership.

“The first 10 days have been incredible, a whirlwind,” Simmons responded when Boyce asked for her thoughts on her term thus far. “Though I’m still looking for my parking spot, full disclosure. But we’ve had some incredible meetings with city employees and we’re trying to get to every floor in the government center.”

Simmons stressed the importance of spending her first day visiting key infrastructure projects around the city, a campaign trail promise. She took along the city’s relevant experts as guides.

“We were looking at infrastructure projects that need attention,” she said. “We went to the train station, the South End, we went to parks and playgrounds. We looked at intersections of roads, and sidewalks. So, please let us know -— we’re all ears if your road needs to be paved or you need an improvement on the street, we want to hear.”

“Hope Street.” a man in the crowd called, eliciting laughs, the night’s sole interruption during the wide-ranging discussion.

Stamford Mayor Caroline Simmons with George Boyce, owner of the Stamford State Farm insurance agency, during the recent “Fireside Chat” presentation. Photo by Justin McGown

Simmons acknowledged the need for repairs along the highly traveled throughfare with good humor and reiterated that she has hit the ground running and is already working on preparing the city for winter weather. She also stressed the importance of preparing for the extreme weather that will be brought by climate change.

“The New England coast is more densely populated than Florida, South Carolina and North Carolina combined,” Boyce observed when the conversation turned toward climate change and resiliency. He noted that as an insurance agent with prior experience in disaster-focused coverage, this issue was a priority for him, asking, “What’s our resiliency plan? How are we looking as a city?”

“On our infrastructure tour this was the question I was asking our engineers,” Simmons responded. “How prepared are we with sea levels expected to rise five to 10 feet in the next couple of decades? How prepared are we as a city for the next storm?”

Simmons indicated there was still work to be done in fully assessing these projects but held out hope that working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and acquiring federal funding will allow not only for needed repairs and upgrades of Stamford’s infrastructure but also building the basis for a more energy-efficient and less vulnerable city.

Audience questions included inquiries into what can be done to improve the reputation of the city’s schools, and specifics of her plan to create a “one stop shop” for permitting.

Describing improving the view of schools as a top priority of her administration, Simmons indicated that the presence of students who speak other languages should be embraced as a strength.

“I think we need to do a much better job of marketing our schools,” she stated. “We have incredible teachers, incredible programs at our schools. We have students who went on to Ivy league schools, we have incredible successes, and I think we need to do better selling our international population of students who get to go to school alongside people that speak 65 different languages from all over the world.”

Her plan for permitting involved creating an “Amazon-like” interface where a single ID and login will be used throughout the entire permitting process, alongside designated days where representatives of every department will be in one room to work together with applicants. The combined meetings could grow out of the Citizen Service Hubs, where city employees set up shop in underserved parts of the city to provide easier access. Simmons noted that 30 people lined up for the first Hub, which was held in the South End.

Boyce insisted that Simmons ask him some questions as the chat was intended as a dialogue. She asked him what his outlook on the city was, and he reflected on how he chose the city for its growth potential, renting space in Landmark Square when the downtown area had a reputation as dangerous. He said he joined Stamford Downtown to help foster change and that Sandy Goldstein, the president at the time had a unique benchmark: “You’ll know when we’ve arrived when you see strollers.”

“And I’m telling you,” he continued, “now I have to duck strollers every time I come out of my front door.”

Simmons, who is expecting her third child, agreed that this was an indicator of both how far the city has come and hope for what the future might hold.