Column: Attracting business to Connecticut depends on choices made

By Robert W. Santy

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It boils down to this: if we are going to ask global companies to invest in Connecticut by locating here, we need to be prepared to welcome them.

The decisions we make, particularly in how we approach economic development at the municipal level, will either put out the welcome mat or make bringing a business here nearly impossible.

That is why the Connecticut Economic Resource Center (CERC) is working both ends of the transaction. We manage two international representatives on behalf of the state Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD) located in Tel Aviv, Israel, and Sao Paulo, Brazil, for example, and we currently have dozens of qualified leads of companies interested in coming to Connecticut. So yes, there is good news in the pipeline!

What happens next is where the challenge lies. If we are to respond and attract companies to our state, we need to do so by being solid on both sides of the line, so to speak.

CERC is a public-private partnership, funded in large part by the state’s utilities and DECD. We partner with DECD on a number of initiatives, from helping to chart a course that emphasizes municipal capacity for economic development, to strategically mounting a business recruitment campaign to bring new business investment to Connecticut.

We also work closely with municipalities throughout the state, such as with the Economic Development Commission in Fairfield currently, to evaluate local economic development activities and suggest ways to play to a community’s strength.

In just the past two years, we have conducted economic development workshops in 25 percent of Connecticut’s 169 municipalities, training over 1,000 people. The goal is to improve economic development programs in this balkanized state, so that the experience for companies dealing with towns improves and hopefully attracts them in increasing numbers.

When you think about where you live, context is everything. In my view, the era of automobile-dependent development is over. National research by Zillow shows that generally, urban housing prices are going up at a higher rate than suburban prices for the first time in decades.

Do you know where the largest percent increase in population in the New York metropolitan area has been in the last decade? Manhattan. Do you know that New Haven and Stamford have both seen population growth in the past decade after 60 to 70 years of declines?

Across the population, our preferences are changing. Millennials, emptynesters and immigrants are all looking for walkable neighborhoods with tremendous amenities and access to transit. I believe this bodes well for Fairfield and potentially for many communities throughout Connecticut.

There is no question that Connecticut’s fiscal ills create uncertainty in the economy, and limit the willingness by some to invest. Nonetheless, it is important for towns to understand what they can control and put a priority on those aspects that can be influenced in developing an overall strategy.

Fairfield, for example, is quite fortunate. Our initial research, still in progress, is indicating some enviable plusses, from strong university anchor institutions to superb location and a highly regarded downtown. There are challenges as well, but apparently not insurmountable.

So, does Fairfield need an economic development strategy? The answer is definitely yes — but that is true everywhere. Economic development is a conscious effort to change the trajectory of a community and generally that’s precisely what is needed.

In the 1970s, recessions were half structural, half cyclical. Now it is more like 80 percent structural and 20 percent cyclical. Why does that matter? Because it means that jobs and investment will not just automatically come back when the recession is over.

Successful communities do not just happen; they are created and nurtured by people who are entrepreneurial, inventive, caring and engaged. When we purposefully build on our successes with an eye towards those who would join us and invest by locating here, our prospects brighten.

The choice is ours.

Robert W. Santy is president and CEO of the Connecticut Economic Resource Center Inc. This commentary is adapted from remarks delivered to the Fairfield Chamber of Commerce annual meeting on June 29, where Santy was the keynote speaker.

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