MERIDEN — The city plans to conduct interviews for the vacant economic development director position next week, with hopes of filling it by May 1.
City Manager Tim Coon said nine applicants will be interviewed for the position, which became vacant when Juliet Burdelski abruptly resigned in February, citing personal reasons.
“We’re interviewing nine very exciting candidates, so it'll be a tough decision,” Coon said during a conversation with the Record-Journal’s editorial board this week.
The position is responsible for recruiting and retaining businesses. The city’s former economic development specialist, Paola Mantilla, also resigned in November. The city has left that position vacant, leaving Community Development Administrator Matt Sarcione as the only employee in the office.
With the departures, Coon has become the main point of contact for new and existing businesses, Mayor Kevin Scarpati said, adding that the Making Meriden Business Center has also helped.
Burdelski’s strength was securing grants for projects, including brownfield remediation, the demolition of the Mills Memorial Apartments, and new residential/commercial developments, including Meriden Commons I and II, 24 Colony St. and 11 Crown St.
Those downtown projects, Coon said, have helped “set the stage for a renaissance that I believe will happen in the very near future” in Meriden.
But with many of those projects complete or underway, a “different skill set may be necessary,” he added.
Before posting the position, Coon met with Mayor Kevin Scarpati, Council Majority Leader David Lowell and Minority Leader Dan Brunet to discuss what they wanted in a new director. Lowell chairs the council’s Economic Development, Housing and Zoning committee, Brunet is vice chair.
Lowell said he wants the next economic development director to focus on business retention, business recruitment, grant funding and collaborating with other departments to make city government more user-friendly.
Brunet and Scarpati both said a candidate's personality and enthusiasm are near the top of their priorities.
“The position is very personality-driven, more so than skill-based,” Brunet said.
Scarpati doesn’t think the city has done a good job attracting new businesses in recent years and was critical of Burdelski’s performance in a recent interview. He believes she often got too “bogged down” in writing and obtaining grants.
“I don't think that office was very effective...specifically with recruiting and retaining businesses,” Scarpati said. “I don’t think we have a great list of people knocking on our door, so we have to figure out a way to go to them. ... We need to be as aggressive as possible.”
Burdelski could not be reached for comment.
Scarpati recalled on a couple of occasions Burdelski “brushed” him off when he suggested she reach out to local businesses that planned to leave Meriden.
Lowell defended Burdelski, saying it’s “totally unfair” to place blame for all the city’s economic development shortcomings on Burdelski.
Coon said Burdelski was often criticized for things that were out of her control.
“I’ll be honest, she had a tough time with some council members and certain members in the community, so it couldn’t have been very pleasant for her at times,” he said.
Coon cited filling downtown storefronts as an example.
“One of the problems downtown is absentee landlords sitting on properties,” Coon said. “You can’t make somebody get a tenant in there when they’re using (the property) for whatever reason — tax avoidance somewhere else. And some of the other building owners have unrealistic expectations for the types of rents they can get immediately.”
Scarpati also believes the city has neglected businesses not located downtown.
“We, as an all-around effort from the Economic Development Office to elected leaders, have spent a great deal of focus on the downtown area, and we've made an impact without a doubt on the appearance of downtown and the reconstruction,” Scarpati said. “But the city of Meriden is more than just our downtown.”
Scarpati and Lowell both pointed out an incentive zone on East Main Street that has yielded several new developments outside of the downtown. Businesses on the west side, though, feel neglected, Scarpati said.
Lowell pointed to the new Taino Smokehouse Prime and Huxley’s locations in the East Main Street incentive zone, as well as a 31,000-square-foot expansion of Ragozzino Foods Inc.’s headquarters on the west side and the new Taco Bell location on West Main Street. Lowell, the chief operating officer of Hunter’s Ambulance, has an office across from the Taco Bell. He said the restaurant is constantly busy, which indicates it “fills a need.”
“Stuff is happening across the city,” Lowell said. “We probably just don't hear about it because of so many years of flood control downtown and so much of the new development centered around the train station is such a dense opportunity.”
Coon would also like to see the next economic development director focus on the entire city. He specifically mentioned Research Parkway, which currently has vacant buildings, calling it “probably the biggest income generator for the city.”
After a director is hired, Coon said the plan is for the Making Meriden Business Center to continue to assist the Economic Development Office in the day-to-day recruitment and retention of downtown businesses. The center, located at 5 Colony St., is a cooperative effort between the Meriden Economic Development Corp. (MEDCO), the Midstate Chamber of Commerce and the city.
The center was launched last year to address the next phase of downtown redevelopment. It offers services to downtown property and business owners and potential investors.