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Some Norwalk Businesses Still Struggling

NORWALK, Conn. — Monique Govil doesn't know for certain why the restaurant across the street from her South Norwalk store closed, but she's got a good guess. "Like everybody else, it's a tough time," Govil said about the now-closed Wasabi Chi. "They probably didn't have enough customers to cover the rent."

That's part of a trend: The recession is still hitting Fairfield County businesses hard, and nearly half don't expect to be profitable this year, according to a new survey released Tuesday.

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 that 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 with the survey's 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 although recovery is slow, he is also seeing positive signs.

These 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."

Although 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."

The Maritime Aquarium is feeling the "wallet issue," marketing director Chris Loynd said last month at an economic forum. "People are still coming to the aquarium, but they're definitely trimming in how much they're going to spend on anything else."

Loynd said he watched a mother tell her children they had to decide between buying something at the gift shop or going to see an IMAX movie. "Our capture rates are definitely in jeopardy, have been for about three years. We're very seasonal and what we're seeing is that our dips are lower than they have been in the past," he said.

Govil, merchant at A Taste of Holland, said the survey doesn't surprise her, either. "I see the same trends in the store. I think that's the average trends, not just in Fairfield County, you'll find that in most parts of the country, or for the world for that matter. ... We're in a better situation than most of the country."

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