Chat with... Tucker Murphy
NEW CANAAN — From a window in what she calls the “50 yard line,” her Elm Street office situated centrally above the Playhouse, Tucker Murphy has a clear view of one of downtown New Canaan’s busiest commercial corridors.
This location works well for Murphy, the executive director of the New Canaan Chamber of Commerce, who, since taking the helm in 2009, has taken a highly personal approach to connecting businesses and the community.
The work suits her — Murphy is outgoing, friendly and after seven years on the job, speaks passionately, and at a rapid pace, about the town’s commercial status. She sat down with the New Canaan News to discuss her past life in politics, how she helped to restore business after the recession and why the high number of commuters are actually boon to the town’s shops.
Quite honestly, I’d been doing it for 12 years and I was at a time in my life when I wanted to think about what would be my next step. I thought it was a good time to sort of hit the pause button. Another factor was that I saw some great candidates stepping up who were interested in Town Council, so I felt that the council was in good hands.
Having said that, I miss it. But because I’m in this job and I’m still so involved in town, I don’t really feel that I’ve walked away from something. And I think that really helped make me successful in this role because I know who to call. I know what the parameters are of what we do in town — things that you can do, things that can’t do. So it’s made my job here a little bit easier in terms of getting things done.
You took over as executive director in 2009. What was the commercial landscape like in town on the heels of the recession? How has it changed since?
We had never seen empty storefronts. In 2009, all of a sudden, there were quite a few. It was a very scary time to take it on, but it was a key time. I remember having this discussion with my husband, saying, ‘What’ve I got to lose?’ I thought to myself that I could really be of value to make sure that everybody recognizes what this town is all about.
How has it changed? A lot of stores have come and gone. A lot of new faces and what I would say, universally, there’s a whole different way of doing business. Pre-2009 these guys were used to just sort of opening their door, having some inventory, people walk in, people buy what they need. It doesn’t work that way anymore. Obviously with online shopping, service is key. They have to provide the best service because you can’t get that online. And they have to have the right inventory. The message that we’re always trying to tell everybody is, if you want your town to look like this, you must, must, must spend time in town.
Has the number of commercial vacancies decreased?
We’re at less than 5 percent right now. Some people would say, ‘Gosh, 5 percent is so high for New Canaan.’ But it was up as high as 13 percent in 2009.
The smaller spaces are the ones that seem to do better because people can handle the rents. But the landlords are working out different terms of leases to make it a little bit easier for some of these guys to stick around.
How are businesses able to withstand the quiet summer months when so many people are away?
It definitely affects it. And the merchants know that. They know how to put things on sale before everybody takes off. Our Sidewalk Sale is always the third Saturday in July and we always feel like that’s sort of the last opportunity. And then people really do take off.
How does New Canaan’s identity as a commuter town and its proximity to Metro-North affect business?
The day-to-day commuting actually I think is a bonus for us. I think, when you look back at whoever developed New Canaan and mapped it out, they were brilliant to make sure that that train line lands right here because it’s so accessible. And now with the town having the Glass House and Grace Farms, it’s becoming a destination for people who don’t live here, especially for the modern architecture.
With the Glass House, people will come out from New York. They can go to the visitor center, which is right across from the train, go on their tour and then come back and wander around town. Maybe have lunch. I think it really helps.
Is there a parking problem in town?
The bottom line is, everyone is this town loves to walk, it’s a very fitness-oriented kind of town.
However, they are also all about convenience. If they want to go to New Canaan Olive Oil and buy something, they want to park right in front of New Canaan Olive Oil. They feel if they have to go park in the back lot and come down through the alley that it’s too far.
If you went to New York City and you could park within five blocks of where you were going you’d think you hit the lottery. But here they want to park right in front of where they want to go.
And we do parking strangely here. We give away our prime parking for free and we charge to park farther away. Some of the conversation is, ‘should we meter this?’
That’s a last resort and we don’t want to go there, but we have a major problem of employees and merchants abusing the free parking.
New Canaan is a very, very special place. We all have to reminded, not only the shop local message, but to respect this town.