Small Connecticut city isn't waiting for Congress to attack urban blight

Some citizens call it the ''bridge to nowhere.'' In the heart of what was once a flourishing industrial community a modern, attractive bridge spans Norwalk's railroad tracks. Drivers who cross this bridge suddenly find themselves in the middle of ''nothing.''

Constructed in 1975, the bridge was to connect the city's industrial area with Interstate 95, but the approach road was never finished. Since then, Norwalk's downtown and industrial waterfront areas have faded and the surrounding residential area has fallen into decay.

But for the past year, ever since Connecticut became the first state to pass enterprise-zone legislation, Norwalk has been planning a ''somewhere'' for the bridge to go. City leaders have designated as an enterprise zone a 100-acre area that embraces the city's original downtown, two public-housing projects, some historical landmarks, vacant buildings and land, and an area for new industry.

Located in the heart of wealthy Fairfield County, Norwalk has set these recovery goals: find uses for closed factories, invigorate the faded downtown, revive an impoverished neighborhood, and become a peer to such plush neighboring cities as Stamford.

To Norwalk, an aging city of 64,000 people, the urban-jobs and enterprise-zone program promises a step toward economic independence.

While Washington legislators debate over a federal enterprise zone law to revive the nation's creaking urban economies, Norwalk is setting up a home-grown program.

''We plan to keep a step ahead of the competition and have our job-zone plans in hand when the federal government finally makes its move,'' says Michael W. Lyons, chairman of the Norwalk Common Council Planning Committee, which oversees the city's enterprise-zone effort.

''Norwalk deserves national recognition for the innovative and comprehensive nature of its enterprise-zone preparations,'' says Mark Frazier, executive director of the Washington-based Sabre Foundation, established to study government activities and urban problems.

Calling the enterprise zone ''an idea whose time has come,'' Lawrence D. Pratt, president of the American Society of Local Officials, says, ''Norwalk is among a group of cities throughout the nation proving that cities can do - and succeed - without federal involvement.''

Norwalk bases its zone program on a four-tiered effort:

* Tax relief. This includes a package of local tax incentives, required by state legislation, with emphasis on a fixed assessment of enterprise-zone properties - two years with no increase regardless of improvements and five years of assessments of improvements well below their market values. Developers of low-cost and moderate-cost housing will be included in this package.

* Neighborhood initiatives. Community ''block watches'' are designed to reduce crime, thus increasing the willingness of businesses to operate in the zone area. Community groups may benefit from voluntary crime-watch and cleanup activities through a share in money earned from city-leased properties. In the long run they may become community-run businesses in security and such services as garbage collection, thus developing new jobs.

* Public-service improvements. This includes not only job-training programs but initiatives such as ''adopt a park'' projects for community groups. These efforts can create jobs for youth and help the hard-core unemployed meet the needs of local industry. Community groups, such as Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now, have developed a program to supply such workers to local employers.

* Deregulation, or streamlining of red tape. Plans call for revision of zoning constraints; speed-up of permit approval for developers; simplification of inspections for meeting fire, health, and building-code requirements; and improvement of the city's services (water, sewer, streets, drainage) in the zone area.

The first move forward for Norwalk was its designation as one of Connecticut's six enterprise zones. Connecticut was the first of 14 states to pass an enterprise-zone law.

Not all urban leaders are enthusiastic about enterprise zones. This is a concept with ''a little bit of merit, but it is certainly not a solution to the problems affecting our cities,'' says Mayor William H. Hudnut III of Indianapolis, past president of the National League of Cities.

Calling the enterprise zone a ''misguided notion of what the center city needs,'' urban planner and developer James W. Rouse says: ''You don't buy business to do something it doesn't want to do. . . . We don't need enterprise zones; we need enterprise.''

However, Norwalk is already benefiting from the state enterprise-zone law, according to Mr. Lyons, who oversees the city's enterprise-zone plans. ,

''Swank, located in our zone area, has decided to stay in Norwalk and expand operations here because of our tax and other incentives,'' he says. ''And our zone will improve with the passage of federal legislation which proposes more incentives than our state does.''

Mr. Lyons says Swank, which manufactures men's accessories, bought the building and land that it previously leased and decided to hire 100 more people. ''They (Swank officials) had planned to relocate to another city,'' he says.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.