With less than a year in their respective jobs, the three featured panelists at the Norwalk Chamber of Commerce’s Nov. 19 Economic & Business Development Forum vowed that their determination would help both the state and Norwalk itself flourish.
Not that the trio have no relevant experience. Before joining the state Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD) in June, Glendowlyn Thames was founding executive director of CTNext, the wholly owned subsidiary of Connecticut Innovation that equips startups and entrepreneurs with guidance and resources.
Peter Denious, who in July was named president and CEO of the Connecticut Economic Resource Center (CERC), previously spent years in private equity and venture capital. And Norwalk Chief of Economic and Community Development Jessica Casey,
who began in that post last December, spent the previous four years in various positions with the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, culminating in chief officer for operations policy and oversight.
“Maybe I’m Pollyanna-ish,” Denious quipped, “but I’m new so I’m allowed to be.”
All three endorsed working more closely with the business community and other stakeholders to get their respective geographies where they need to be.
DECD and CERC – the latter of whose name will be changed, according to Denious – are now working together more closely to divide responsibilities and create a united front, he said.
“Connecticut has not had an economic development plan that takes a 10-year view,” Denious continued, adding that the two bodies will deliver such a plan by the end of January. “We will take it into the field and talk to people locally to make this a statewide initiative,” he pledged.
The plan will “drive better collaboration in Connecticut,” Denious declared. “Part of that is having a credible plan that people can believe in. Our aspirations and goals are extremely ambitious.”
Thames noted that Gov. Ned Lamont’s recent formation of the Governor’s Workforce Council, designed to partner with the business community and remove barriers among state government agencies, will be “huge and transformational.
“We are a very siloed state,” she continued, saying that rather than a single state economy there are various ecosystems – Fairfield County, the greater Hartford area, and New Haven among them – with no sharing of best practices. Something that works in, for example, Southeast Connecticut could be used as a model for other areas, Thames said, but the infrastructure to share such knowledge is missing.
She noted that the recent hiring of Colin Cooper as the state’s first-ever chief manufacturing officer was designed to bridge such gaps in that sector.
In addition to a number of initiatives in Norwalk to streamline how government and the business community can work together, Casey touted the Fairfield Five — the regional marketing initiative consisting of the mayors or first selectmen and the economic development heads of Fairfield, Greenwich, Norwalk, Stamford and Westport – as one successful approach to recruiting companies.
As for the city itself, Casey said most of the focus continues to be on developing the areas surrounding its train stations. “Yesterday we met with a company that’s looking for 20,000 square feet of office space and that’s close to a train station,” she noted.
Another recurring theme was workforce availability – and the lack of it. Casey said the city had recently met with all of the community colleges in the state to discuss what their curricula are and what they should be for the coming years. “We have 3,500 engineering students graduating within 100 miles of Norwalk,” she remarked, saying that the challenge is to get them to take jobs and live in the area.
All three spoke enthusiastically about the opportunities that the Opportunity Zone program represents – Norwalk has three OZs – with Thames saying that, properly developed, such areas would reach a “critical mass” that would draw first capital, then workforce talent.