The future use of Grace Episcopal Church, which closed in May after 123 years, began to be mapped out Tuesday night.
Officials with the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut had a community meeting in the church, which closed because of declining membership, to determine "how best to use this building as a resource for God's mission in Norwalk," said Audrey Scanlan, canon for mission collaboration and congregational life at the diocese.
But Scanlan didn't solicit ideas for potential uses of the Union Park church and grounds from the three dozen people at the meeting, which included clergy from Norwalk and Stamford churches, Norwalk officials and neighborhood residents. Instead, Scanlan wanted them to talk about Norwalk's strengths, challenges and where they thought the city was headed.
"This is, for us, a chance to listen to you. This is a listening session for us," Scanlan said at the start of the two-hour meeting. "The one thing we're not deciding tonight is what we're going to do with the building."
Among the strengths of Norwalk cited by audience members were:
Residents who aren't as interested in materialism as people who live in surrounding towns, which enables Norwalk residents to act upon their values.
Diversity of race, religion, ages and socioeconomic status, the latter of which forces people to address hardships their fellow residents are going through.
A wide variety of cultural institutions, restaurants and historical sites that draw out-of-town residents to Norwalk.
Big-box stores that enable less-skilled people to find employment.
A sense of community and pride in Norwalk and a willingness among city residents to work together to help each other.
"There's an urgency to be better than we are," Norwalk Fire Chief Denis McCarthy said. "I think there is that positive tension in the air, looking for that next opportunity to get beyond where we are today."
McCarthy said residents' interest in improving the city makes Norwalk "ripe for an idea."
Other strengths of Norwalk cited by attendees included:
A geographic location that is nearby natural resources and close to Stamford and New York City.
The availability of more public housing compared to surrounding towns.
Challenges facing the city that attendees identified included:
A "credibility gap" that causes out-of-town residents to think Norwalk schools aren't as good as those in surrounding towns.
Metered parking and a lack of parking spaces at Norwalk Public Library and other venues in the city.
Crime, gang violence and homelessness.
Poor marketing of services that are designed to help residents in need and the lack of a city Department of Social Services, which McCarthy said requires firefighters and police to do that work.
"There's no coordination of social services," Scanlan said. "That's what I'm hearing."
The Rev. Lois Keen, former priest in charge at Grace Episcopal Church and a neighborhood resident, said the city didn't have enough safe places for children.
"It wasn't so bad until the Y closed," Keen said, referring to the YMCA's closing last winter.
Other challenges facing the city that attendees identified included:
A city government that didn't cultivate new businesses and that seemed to be complacent and out-of-sync with residents.
Residents going hungry.
Transportation, including bus runs that don't always go where residents are headed and limited opportunities for bicyclists to safely travel.
A large gap between the "haves" and "have nots."
"Times are tough and jobs are scarce," said Don Burr, a senior warden at Christ Episcopal Church in East Norwalk. "Where do we go? Soup kitchens and shelters, none of it is adequate in this town. Not because people aren't trying, there's just not enough."
Other attendees said Norwalk had a lot of residents who are "land rich and cash poor" and that property values, upon which municipal taxes are based, were high compared to income levels.
"We've had tremendous loss of middle-income jobs to be replaced, if they're replaced at all, by low-paying jobs," Westmoreland said.
He said property taxes in Norwalk were "extremely high" and that the mechanism for state aid was based on property values and not income.
"Stamford receives much more of the state pie," Westmoreland said. "We're not big enough, we're not politically connected enough, to dig ourselves out of it."
Keen said day laborers in Norwalk who have difficulty speaking English are taken advantage of by their employers.
"It's hard to get help for people who may be being taken advantage of and are struggling desperately to learn the language," she said. "It's a sort of shadow area because most are probably not documented."
The attendees briefly discussed where Norwalk was headed and their thoughts included:
A trend toward consolidation among churches and agencies that help the poor.
A trend toward Norwalk becoming a retirement community, which leads to fewer young residents becoming involved in community organizations and civic activities.
Flat enrollment at Norwalk schools.
Scanlan said notes from the community meeting would be shared with the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut's Property Committee, its three bishops and its Missionary Society.
Bishop James Curry said Tuesday night's community meeting was just the start of the diocese's determination of what to do with the church, and Scanlan said the diocese's Missionary Society, which is comprised of 40 clergy and lay people, would have the final say on how the property is used.
"The Missionary Society votes to determine the ultimate use, whether we sell it, whether we rent it," she said.
Scanlan said the diocese may conduct another community meeting to solicit ideas for the future of the church building and grounds.
"We might have something focused toward options for use, but this was an important first step ... to come and get to know about Norwalk," she said.