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A Gem in Northern Fairfield County

Danbury - a gem in northern Fairfield County

Perched on Connecticut’s western border, Danbury enjoys two geographical assets: size and location. The city has an area of 44 square miles, more than twice the size of Hartford, New Haven or Bridgeport. In addition to size, its proximity to New York is a strategic asset. Danbury is in northern Fairfield County, accessible to the Gold Coast - southern Fairfield County - and New York’s Westchester and Putnam counties. With comparatively affordable housing, Danbury draws residents from these pricey regions.

Size and location came together in the 1970s when major New York corporations were moving to suburban locations. The completion of I-684 put the city an hour away from Manhattan. Five major companies moved to large swaths of land in the western part of Danbury near the New York line, the largest of which was Union Carbide, which built the largest freestanding building in the state. In the early 1980s, Danbury traded its historic fairgrounds for one of the Northeast’s largest shopping malls, the Danbury Fair Mall (the city’s largest taxpayer and a major employment center).

Unlike much of the state, Danbury is growing, adding more than 10,000 residents since 2000, to reach an estimated population of 84,992. (Danbury is the state’s seventh largest municipality).

Danbury’s economy is diverse and resilient

An economic study by DataCore Partners LLC released in April 2017 found that the Danbury labor market area - Danbury and five suburban towns - had recovered 107% of jobs lost during the recession, outperforming the state’s 74.1% job-recovery rate. The city’s unemployment rate of 3.9% (April 2017) was well below the state’s 4.7%. The city’s economy is remarkably diverse with small and medium-sized manufacturing firms making ball bearings, fuel cells, pharmaceuticals, aerospace parts and other products. There are job opportunities in health care, construction and higher education. Hundreds of residents commute to jobs in Norwalk, Stamford, Westchester County and New York City.

A Pro-Business Market

Eighth consecutive term Mayor Mark Boughton runs an efficiently managed city keeping taxes down, crime low and budgets balanced showing more fiscal discipline than some other cities. He has instituted “concurrent permitting” which means that a prospective business owner in need of permitting brings in a half dozen sets of plans which are handed to all the departments that need to rule on it - police, fire, engineering, health, planning - simultaneously. A permitting coordinator quarterbacks the effort and, “If it doesn’t have to go to planning and zoning, we can usually get it done in one-and-a-half or two days,” said Boughton. He also opens city hall at 7 a.m. for the convenience of business people.

A Well-Educated Community

The percentage of Danbury High School students enrolling in college is 67.9%, just below the state average of 71.9%. In 2017, two seniors from DHS - the state’s largest high school - received appointments to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Danbury is a little United Nations

One of Connecticut’s most ethnically diverse cities, Danbury welcomes residents from Ecuador, Portugal, Brazil, Lebanon, Poland, Peru, India, Vietnam, Cambodia, Mexico, and other countries and recognizes 43 different languages spoken in its schools. To walk through downtown and see the plethora of ethnic restaurants and other immigrant-owned businesses is to be reminded that Danbury’s growth has been in large part driven by immigrants, from the Irish, Germans and Italians who came in the 19th century to build the railroads and make the hats, to the big surge of those from Central and South America in the past two decades.

Hat City still a manufacturing hub

In Connecticut’s industrial age, a number of manufacturing towns were known for a single product - brass in Waterbury, thread in Willimantic, silk in Manchester. Starting in the late 18th century when local hatters got a toehold in New York and other major markets, Danbury grew to be the country’s largest manufacturer of men’s hats. By 1880, the city’s hat factories were turning out 4.5 million hats a year. At the turn of the 20th century, Danbury produced nearly 25% of the nation’s finished hats and 75% of the unfinished hat bodies, which were finished in small shops near major markets. Labor strife, health issues such as “hatter’s shakes” from exposure to mercury in the hat-making process and, particularly, changes in fashion doomed the hat industry. The coming of the automobile meant men wore less outerwear, including hats, which would often get knocked off as they got into the car. The GIs who returned from World War II, notably the skipper of PT 109, gradually stopped wearing hats. The last hat was made in the last hat factory in Danbury in 1987.

While other cities were crippled by the loss of their major industry, Danbury was not for several reasons. The city had built an infrastructure - roads, rail, reservoirs, housing - that would welcome other businesses. In addition, hatters were skilled artisans who could make other things. There was a long tradition of women in the workforce and, Danbury was one of the first communities in the nation to create a formal economic development program, largely the work of hat factory owner Frank Lee. Though he was profoundly unpopular in many quarters for busting the hatters union, Lee had seen the shift from bowlers to fedoras and understood that Danbury’s future would be uncertain if its entire industrial base relied on the whim and vagaries of fashion. He and other business leaders formed the Danbury Industrial Corporation in 1918, with the goal of providing land and modern facilities for new industries. Though it got off to a slow start, the city had a structure in place to engage the economic expansion after World War II. By recruiting new businesses as the hat industry faded, Danbury never collapsed and never lost its middle class.

Low Crime and a Revitalized Downtown

Per the most recent available 2015 state numbers, Danbury’s rate of 1,932 crimes per 100,000 residents is below the state average of 2,054 per 100,000, making Danbury one of the state’s safest large or mid-sized cities.

Like many other cities, Danbury has taken a number of steps to revitalize its downtown. There is a downtown special services district called CityCenter, a business incubator called Danbury Hackerspace where tinkerers can work on ideas for new businesses under the tutelage of other business people, an expanded community college campus and downtown housing. A major development called Kennedy Flats just opened downtown with 370 units, which is already 70% occupied.

It seems to be having the desired effect. “We are seeing more people on the street,” said Jacqueline Smith, Editorial Editor of the Danbury News-Times. Though there are still a few empty storefronts, three coffee houses have opened in the last year, said P.J. Prunty, Executive Director of CityCenter. And, the city pays attention to little things, for example, the bus shelters are clean.

Source: CT Mirror, June 2017