As 2021 begins to wind down and the first glimmers of 2022 begin to shine on the distant horizon, it is not unusual for people to look back at the previous year’s triumphs and challenges while considering what promises and potholes lurk in the year to come.
Dan Onofrio is no exception to this spin of retrospective thought and forecasting. As president and CEO of the Bridgeport Regional Business Council, he is looking back and looking ahead with vibrant doses of satisfaction.
“I think the city is in a pretty good position,” he told the Business Journal. “Obviously, the last two years has been difficult for businesses, and I think the city has done a really good job of managing the crisis. They’ve been diligent with the mandates that helps businesses.
“Going forward,” he continued, “we’ve got a lot of opportunities. And there’s a lot of influx of dollars coming into the state of Connecticut. I think Bridgeport and the greater Bridgeport region is poised in a good position to take advantage of some of those dollars, whether it’s infrastructure dollars that you’ve been hearing a lot about or some other opportunities.”
Onofrio was queried on a slate of subjects that impacted Bridgeport over 2021 and will continue to shape its business environment in 2022.
Getting Major Corporate Tenants: Although Bridgeport is Fairfield County’s (and the state’s) most populous city, major companies that recently relocated into Connecticut settled further down I-95 in Stamford. Onofrio acknowledged that many companies looking into a new Connecticut setting wind up bypassing Bridgeport.
“We have a unique problem here in the sense that a lot of our existing properties are older,” he said. “We’ve had pockets of really good success stories, such as Cherry Street Lofts, but for us a big step forward is zoning that will help property owners and developers get a clearer picture of what they can and can’t do with their properties. I think it will allow a little bit more flexibility.”
He admitted there is a “need to do a better job of marketing the region and the city. And if you look at our inventory, we have to be creative. We’ve had interest from many, many people who called here and were looking for X-number of square footage – and oftentimes I’m like, ‘We just don’t have it, at least not ready to build or available for sale.’”
Mitigating M&T’s Threatened Layoffs: One of the biggest local business stories of 2021 was the proposed acquisition of Bridgeport-headquartered People’s United Bank by M&T Bank, which was followed by concerns that M&T would enact massive layoffs in the area.
Onofrio acknowledged that the blending of the two banks would create some redundancies in back-office functions – M&T stated that customer-facing People’s United employees will remain in their jobs. But he cautioned that the transaction is still awaiting regulatory approval and early signs are not pointing to an economic catastrophe for the area.
“We’re still waiting for the deal to close and I think everyone’s still kind of wait and see,” Onofrio said. “We have been in conversations with M&T and think that we’re going to see a recommitment to the region. The messaging that I’ve been hearing from M&T has been positive and I think we’ll see them come out in a big way in support of the community.”
A New Future for the Airport: Last month, the city of Bridgeport and the Connecticut Airport Authority (CAA) have announced plans to upgrade Sikorsky Memorial Airport with the goal of attracting commercial flights to the facility. The airport recently received a $7 million infusion from the State Bond Commission that will be allocated for the pavement rehabilitation on Runway 11-29, and the city and the CAA issued a joint statement promising “construction will soon begin to undertake necessary capital projects that allow for the development of commercial flights at Sikorsky Airport.”
Onofrio welcomed the development as a win-win for the region and the state, observing that “airport travel, whether commercial or free, is going to need to continue to expand because just how commerce has evolved – and the New York airports just don’t have the land, the space to expand. We’re in a fortunate position because we have opportunity here for expansion.”
Onofrio added that the CAA’s new interest in potentially operating the city-owned airport is also a potential plus, as it would free up city funds and focus to pursue other projects. He also theorized having an airport would enable Bridgeport to snag larger corporate tenants that are moving elsewhere in the county.
As for the competition from New Haven Tweed Airport, which recently began offering a slate of flights to Florida via Avelo Airlines, Onofrio insisted he would “love to see coexistence – I think that’s the best-case scenario for the shoreline.”
The Case for Lodging: Onofrio held up the Hartford HealthCare Amphitheater as one of Bridgeport’s economic triumphs of 2021, although he lamented the plans to restore the long-shuttered Majestic Theater and Poli Palace stalled indefinitely when developers failed to secure capital for the renovations. That project also included plans for a boutique hotel, while the pre-pandemic plans for an MGM Resorts hotel and gaming complex in Bridgeport also came to naught.
Bridgeport only has one hotel, a Holiday Inn in the downtown area, and Onofrio hinted at an upcoming announcement for a long-overdue second lodging establishment, which he gladly welcomed.
“We’re the largest city in the state and we’ve got one hotel,” he said. “Having these lodging establishments available is an opportunity again for businesses and for people who are looking to invest in the region.”
The Housing Crunch: While bringing businesses into the city and the greater region is one endeavor, getting them to take up residence is another matter.
“The housing stock here needs to continue to evolve and I think we’re seeing that,” Onofrio said. “Out at Steelpointe, they’re looking to build some apartments and hopefully they’ll be breaking ground next year on market-rate apartments.”
Onofrio insisted that a variety of mixed housing is needed to make an economy work, and he was a big proponent of encouraging new housing in Bridgeport’s downtown.
“We have an opportunity here to really take advantage of the housing stock down here and offer opportunities for young professionals,” he said.
Same Time, Next Year: When asked where he would picture Bridgeport 12 months from now, Onofrio cited Bridgeport’s waterfront developments and the new Goodwin College leadership running the University of Bridgeport as being among the key driving forces of 2022. He also expressed the need for expanded public-private partnerships to encourage new projects.
“I do feel like this time next year, we’re going to have some more stories to celebrate,” he said.