Kate Hampford Donahue is no stranger to change.
In 2007, she left a career in the media industry to take the leadership of her family’s Hampford Research Inc., a manufacturer of high purity chemicals for the electronics, dental, personal care, printing and imaging and adhesives markets. And Donahue’s commute to and from the company’s 54 Veterans Blvd. facility in Stratford offers a daily reminder of change: Hampford was once surrounded in this section of town by other manufacturers, but now its neighboring businesses are retail stores and restaurants.
In her new two-year role as chairwoman of the Bridgeport Regional Business Council (BRBC), Donahue is facing a new form of change.
“It is an interesting time for the chambers,” said Donahue, referring to the BRBC’s affiliate chambers of commerce representing Bridgeport, Stratford and Trumbull. “We are about to enter into a strategic planning process that we do every five or six years.”
Donahue cited economic development for Bridgeport and the surrounding communities as her key focus in the strategic planning process, with “job creation of all kinds” as her goal. She noted Bridgeport is becoming more viable through new mixed-use property developments in the downtown neighborhood, and she cited the potential offered by long-dormant sites from the city’s industrial past.
“We have been repurposing some of these old manufacturing sites,” she said. “Steel Point, the Derektor site, the Remington site, the old DuPont site — how do we take some of these old sites, which have not been used for a long time and turn them into something that drives economic growth?”
Donahue also pointed to new partnerships between Bridgeport and New Haven as a significant change in regional economic alliances. With the two cities sharing a bid to lure Amazon’s proposed second headquarters campus to the Connecticut shoreline, and with the proposed MGM Bridgeport casino resort project encompassing both a Bridgeport location and a New Haven job training center, Fairfield County’s largest city is looking and finding urban partnerships in another county.
“My understanding is that the process the two cities went through was extremely positive and people who were involved came out of it very encouraged by the dialogue they were in,” said Donahue, referring to the joint Amazon headquarters bid. “We tend to look downstate and, in reality, there’s less interest in Stamford and Norwalk in partnering with Bridgeport, so maybe it would make sense to look north a little bit and see if there’s an opportunity. It doesn’t matter which direction you’re looking. If you find people who want to band together, it makes more sense.”
Donahue hopes to use the strategic planning process to encourage diversity both within the BRBC and in the region’s companies.
“Research has demonstrated that the more diverse companies are, the more reflective they are of their customers and the better they do,” she said. “So, trying to make sure businesses of all kinds thrive here is good for everyone.”
Still, Donahue acknowledged that some issues have resisted change. Among those, the majority of Bridgeport’s tax revenue comes from residential property.
“Bridgeport is challenged because of how physically small it is,” she said. “Getting the balance of taxes from residential versus commercial is the big challenge. We’re out of whack on that.”
And in her own town of Stratford, “There’s not that much land left that’s undeveloped,” Donahue said. The town, she said, is exploring ways to create a transit-oriented district that would encourage mixed-use property development, with housing for residents who could walk to the local train station for their commutes into New York City.
Donahue is also eager to use her BRBC role to change attitudes about the region, especially the long-standing negatives that have burdened Bridgeport’s reputation. She commended efforts by Mayor Bridgeport Mayor Joseph Ganim and his predecessor, Bill Finch, in trying to revitalize the city and said she their work is paying off.
“Bridgeport still struggles a little bit, but if you spend any time downtown, you’ll know there is some really good stuff going on there,” she said. “There are good restaurants, there’s more entertainment. Sometimes we feel that we’re constantly on the cusp, but in the business community we are really optimistic that there are still more good things to come.”
Donahue pointed to a recent United Van Lines study of outbound migration that cited Connecticut as the fourth-ranked state for population exodus, and wondered how this could be fixed.
“It is expensive to live here, so maybe for some folks getting out of college it’s certainly not the cheapest place to live,” she said. “But there are a lot of advantages: access to New York and Boston, beautiful natural resources, lots to do, good food and entertainment. One of the challenges is that we’re such a small state, so a couple of thousand net loss feels like a lot.”
Donahue expressed confidence that her tenure chairing the BRBC board will result in change for the better, and was hopeful that the area could attract a couple of new business endeavors.
“Of course, we could use a baseball team.” she said. “And a football team, too.”