Now approaching his 29th year at The Business Council of Fairfield County, President and CEO Chris Bruhl has a unique perspective of the county’s and state’s economic realities, as well as some singular ideas as to how to improve upon them.
When Bruhl joined the BCFC in 1990, Fairfield County’s population stood at about 829,000, compared with the roughly 950,000 that live here today. The median household income has more than doubled from $45,500 to $94,200. The number of private establishments in all industries has grown from nearly 29,000 to just over 35,000.
Yet it’s hardly a secret that Connecticut as a whole continues to underperform. According to the state’s Department of Labor, in October Connecticut’s unemployment rate stood at 4.2 percent – an improvement over January’s 4.5 percent, but still behind the rest of the Northeast and the country. The state’s total economic output has grown by .02 percent since 2011, compared with 18 percent for the nation as a whole.
High taxes, a gaping state budget deficit and businesses and people leaving the state — although high-profile companies like Stamford’s Henkel and Indeed have increased their workforces, and United Van Lines’ annual study of people moving to and from each state found Connecticut losing a net of just 400 from 2017 to 2018 — have contributed to the perception that this is a state in decline.
But Bruhl said he was upbeat about Connecticut’s — and, in particular, Fairfield County’s — future. He spoke with the Business Journal’s Kevin Zimmerman on Dec. 19 to discuss what he sees as the county’s strengths, the Business Council’s hopes for the state’s incoming governor — and how the state needs to look beyond its borders for more opportunities.
What is the state of Fairfield County’s business environment at the moment?
“I’d say it’s pretty strong, and that it will continue to be so in the future. Fairfield County is often looked at as its own economy, rather than a collection of 23 municipalities. And we have some major employers who are very involved with global trade, which certainly helps.
“The metro New York economy should keep growing through 2019, and Fairfield County will benefit from that. The fact that we have so many financial services companies here leads to some disproportionate wealth in Fairfield County, as opposed to the rest of the country. But the Wall Street effect can be disproportionate as well — the reaction to weeks of decline in the economy is felt in Fairfield County in a way that it may not be in, say, Knoxville, Tennessee.”
What do you foresee incoming Gov. Ned Lamont doing for the county?
“He’s the first person in probably two generations with a private sector business background to be in the governor’s office in Connecticut, and I expect he will bring a different perspective to certain issues than what we’ve been seeing. He’s a Greenwich resident and has been for quite some time, which should have some influence. He will have an understanding of Fairfield County as an important part of the state of Connecticut and will understand the issues, needs and contributions that it makes.
“That’s not necessarily the current point of view of large parts of the legislature — they really attend to meeting the needs of the state of Connecticut and we’re somehow not included in that comprehensive strategic thinking. It’s not intentional, but it’s become an experiential reality.”
So you and the Business Council are enthusiastic about the possibilities under Lamont?
“We will be supportive as we have been of each governor. During a transition like this there’s always a feeling that it’s a fresh start. But he’s shown a willingness to try new things. I would observe that when he ran for U.S. Senate (in 2006) and did not win, he did not leave the field of public policy and public service, like he could have. He’s remained engaged in a number of data-driven policy initiatives as a citizen, and has worked to understand the issues and to bring people together.”
Is there a particular issue that you’d like to see at the top of his “to-do” list?
“As an organization, we see transportation — in particular community rail — as the single most urgent and pressing issue in coastal Connecticut. Rail contributes the most effectively and efficiently to the growth of New York City.
“But the growth of Manhattan and Brooklyn have reached certain limits, so now you’ll be seeing increasing growth in the Bronx, Queens, Westchester County and certainly Fairfield County and on into New Haven County. And that calls for not just improved rail service within the state, but outside Connecticut as well.
“We can no longer confine ourselves to just the state. None of our cities can be self-sufficient economically on their own — we have to participate regionally and even nationally.
“There is also the ongoing need here for affordable housing … and to refocus on education. There are moral consequences of failing to embrace the bedrock truth that all children can learn. Providing ample educational opportunities has been a stated value of Connecticut for a very, very long time — but it has not been an achievement.
“By not addressing that need, we’re not keeping pace with the job market. From both a moral perspective and an economic perspective, we have no choice but to ensure education for all our children.”
I’d like to go back to your comments about thinking regionally and even globally, as opposed to the sort of isolationist attitude that many believe we have as a state. What can be done to improve that situation?
“There are four cities outside of Connecticut that we as a state should have a strategy of understanding and working with where we can, in terms of infrastructure, the flow of ideas and talent and building relationships. New York City and to a lesser degree Boston are two of them, and we’re doing all-right there.
“But the other two are Providence and Albany. We really need to embrace Providence — they’re physically close to us and can give us additional scale to compete more nationally. A third of Electric Boat’s employees live in Rhode Island, and they’re one of the four largest private sector economic drivers in our state.
“In addition to being New York’s capital, Albany is a gateway to western New York. We can’t define ourselves by our borders, but by national scale. Connecticut needs to pay attention to those four major cities outside our borders in order to grow.”
What’s prevented us from doing that?
“Historically we’ve been very ‘Connecticut-only’ focused. A lot of people who live here define Connecticut as ‘outside of …,’ ‘on the outskirts of…’ or ‘adjoining’ somewhere else. But when you take into consideration the megalopolis that runs from Washington, D.C. to Boston, you realize that we’re within 300 miles of a third of the American population. And we’re really right in the middle of it all.
“If we start to work with our neighbors instead of viewing them as competitors, we can collectively gain access to all sorts of resources and scale. And that positions us better for growing global competition. If we see and understand ourselves that way, we can get rid of the ‘Connecticut blahs’ that so many of us seem to have.”