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Wilton's Businesses Look Ahead to Recovery

WILTON, Conn. – Kathleen Cragan has operated an interior design business in Wilton for 29 years and has never seen people run away from businesses as they did during the recent recession.

But she has seen her business steadily increase since then, though she said the economy still needs to recover about 30 percent. "By and large, people, I think, have been looking forward to something happy and making their homes look pretty, whereas a couple years ago I just didn't see that," Cragan said.

Butch Baltuck opened his pet supply store in January. Oliver's Place , located by the Village Market, is geared toward healthy pet foods. Butch said he hasn't seen a dip in business — in fact, it has surged.

But he attributes that surge to people finding out about the store through word of mouth. "We're doing OK here," Baltuck said.

But the recession is still hitting Fairfield County businesses hard, according to a new survey released Tuesday. As the region's economy slowed amid concerns about the national economy, transportation infrastructure and operating costs, just slightly more than 50 percent of county businesses are counting on being profitable, according to the survey.

The 2011 Fairfield County Business Survey , published by the Connecticut Business & Industry Association and the Stamford Chamber of Commerce, in partnership with BlumShapiro and TD Bank, found that just 53 percent of those surveyed expected to turn a profit in 2011. That is 7 percentage points lower than in 2010, according to the survey.

Those figures are "dismal" when compared with the 84 percent of the region's businesses who were profitable in 2007, before the recession hit, business leaders say.

Business group leaders from one end of the county to the other say they are not surprised by the survey's bleak results, but also say they see signs that an economic recovery is on the way – though slowly.

"We are in a recession, and you can see from the survey charts that, reflecting national trends, profitability has been negatively impacted," said Joseph McGee, vice president of the Fairfield County Business Council in Stamford.

"Has this recession damaged profitability? Absolutely," said McGee. "Has it impacted jobs? Of course. But on the other hand we're seeing growth too, as businesses are moving into the area and there has been job growth in individual companies, even though we are way below jobs compared to five years ago."

Paul S. Timpanelli, president and chief executive officer of the Bridgeport Regional Business Council, agreed that while recovery is slow, he is also seeing positive signs.

The survey results "don't come as any surprise, we have been mired in a very severe recession and nearly reached bottom when we were close to a depression in 2008," said Timpanelli. "It's going to take a long time to recover."

But, he said, "I do see things starting to trend the other way. For example, I can name 25 businesses that have hired more people within the past year. What's important as we move forward is that businesses improve their product, go global and keep getting leaner."

While many county firms are on track for growth, a sizeable minority continues to struggle, according to the survey. A quarter of businesses that responded to the biennial survey were in the red this year, while 23 percent expected economic conditions to worsen in 2012.

"We were hopeful that 2011 was going to be the year of growth," said Jack Condlin, president and CEO of the Stamford Chamber of Commerce. "The first half was encouraging, but the third quarter took the wind out of our sails."

But Kathleen Cragan said that because it is Fairfield County, the economy is bouncing back quicker.

"It's just nice to see people moving forward rather than stepping back. I think it's still hard because I think a lot of people are still hurting and that's reflected in the businesses," Cragan said.

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