P.J. Prunty became president and CEO of the Greater Danbury Chamber of Commerce in March 2018, having previously served as director of CityCenter Danbury. Earlier in his career, he worked as a community services coordinator in the Danbury mayor’s office. Prunty is a Danbury native. He is quick to point out he attended Danbury High School and display a miniature helmet from the school’s football team, the Hatters.
“We’re the only team in the country called the Hatters,” he laughed, adding that some careless readers wonder why there is a team called the Haters.
In this edition of Suite Talk, Business Journal Senior Enterprise Editor Phil Hall talks with Prunty about the business environment within his section of Fairfield County.
What is the state of the business community in the Greater Danbury market?
“Very positive. The city of Danbury and the Greater Danbury area outpaces the state in many of the measurement metrics. We have the lowest unemployment rate in the state. We have recovered the most jobs from the recession.”
There also seems to be a great deal of entrepreneurial activity in this area. What is encouraging this environment?
“I think it is a combination of things, including access to like-minded individuals that share that same desire to start up small businesses. We have an Innovation Center here in Danbury that really encourages entrepreneurs to meet with one another and share ideas. I think location has a big impact. If you are familiar with lower Fairfield County and Westchester County, I think people find this area much more affordable in terms of living and opening a business. And the quality of life, as well. I am from the area, so I am a little bit biased.
“The city of Danbury is 44 square miles. It is one of the larger cities in the state in terms of square miles and it is growing at a rapid pace. I think we are among the few cities seeing a direct increase in population. It’s a good problem to have. Yes, we have overcrowding in the schools, but I think that’s a positive because it says that people want to move here. To quote the mayor: people are voting with their feet.”
What are some of the growth areas in the local business scene?
“It is a real mix. Retail is a pretty big sector here. The mall is also a tremendous asset for us. In a day and age where you are starting to see larger brick-and-mortar malls closing up shop, the Danbury Fair Mall is bucking that trend. I think a lot of it has to do with our location and the management of the mall. A lot of folks come from New York state to shop here.
“We also have a lot of new restaurants. If you are familiar with the west side of Danbury, there seems to be a new restaurant popping up every other day. And there is a great diversity of cuisine. We are a very diverse city and that is seen through the restaurants opening up.
“We have the hospital and the pharmaceutical companies here. And it may not seem like it, but manufacturing is alive and well in our area.”
Danbury is also the only city in northwest Fairfield County. Who are you competing against for attracting new business and keeping existing companies?
“We’re still part of Fairfield County, but we are sort of in our own oasis where we are a self-sustaining economy to a certain degree. I would say Stamford is our biggest competitor, so to speak. If you go across the border, there’s White Plains. And to a smaller degree, Norwalk, which has about 5,000 to 6,000 more people in their city. I wouldn’t say Waterbury or Hartford.”
Does the chamber play a proactive role in seeking out companies to set up shop in your market?
“Companies usually go to City Hall first and then come to us. We have a great working relationship with City Hall. There is an office there called the Office of Small Business Advocacy and we work hand in hand on companies that are kicking the tires, so to speak.
“I would like us to become more proactive in that economic development and recruitment component.”
What do companies gain by joining the chamber?
“One of the biggest benefits companies get from being part of the chamber is the networking opportunities. Social media and LinkedIn do a great job of connecting folks, but there is a limit there. Nothing will ever beat the face-to-face interaction in developing business relationships through old-school networking.
“We also have a program called Leadership Danbury, which is an opportunity for the employers in the area to send their employees through a nine-month program. It is a firsthand look at all of the resources in the Greater Danbury region. We spend an entire day on public safety and criminal justice, so we go to the police department, fire department and do a tour of the federal corrections facility. Another day, we go to Danbury Hospital to learn about the health care in the community. I did the program when I worked in the mayor’s office back in 2012 and I didn’t realize how much I didn’t know about the community.
“We have a lobbyist who primarily focuses on issues that impact us. It was either my first or second day here and I got a call from my lobbyist. I don’t recall what the bill was, but he said, ‘The Labor Committee is debating this bill and where does the chamber stand on it?’ And I was still trying to figure out how to turn the coffee pot on and where the paper clips are, and I was expected to make a decision based off of 700 members who may have 700 different opinions. So, we created a Legislative Council that acts as a sounding board, with members from different industries. We have a more formal process now, so we can go to our legislators and say, ‘This is where the chamber stands on the issues.’
“Another initiative we are rolling out is a Young Professionals Council. Being from the area and 31 years old, I always felt there was a little bit of a void in terms of engaging the younger workforce in our area. It’s an effort to engage that demographic and make them feel Danbury is ‘cool,’ for lack of a better term, and create opportunities for them to network and become more informed of different processes and trends.”
Are there areas in the business community that could benefit from improvement?
“I don’t know if it would be an improvement, but I would like to see more technology companies. I am not necessarily talking about high-tech, but app development companies. There is an opportunity for us to go out and track that.”