GROTON — At a Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut breakfast in Groton on Thursday, invited leaders from Connecticut’s Department of Economic and Community Development, and nonprofit AdvanceCT, spoke about government partnerships with the private sector.
“South Carolina and other states down south have been calling our companies. Why can’t we do the same?” said Peter Denious, president and CEO of AdvanceCT, formerly the Connecticut Economic Resource Center.
“Why can’t we go on offense and get on our front foot and work with companies like Pfizer about who in your supply chain should be here. Who do we have a value proposition for to go off and market those strengths that we all know we have? Let’s get out there and start playing offense. That’s the message that we have for you to start asking for your support.”
Denious spoke to an audience of eastern Connecticut businesses and economic development officials.
Glendowlyn Thames, deputy commissioner of Connecticut’s Department of Economic and Community Development, also spoke at the forum.
Thames said that DECD was supporting legislation in the General Assembly that would update state tax incentives for businesses to hire additional employees, as well as efforts to end the department’s practice of lending money directly to companies, which she described as unproductive competition with private lenders.
“It’s time for us to pivot our incentives,” Thames said. “The [tax] incentives that we are presenting are not that rich, to be honest, but are more performance-based and earn-as-you-go and so really kind of low risks for our taxpayers and for our businesses. What we’re suggesting is, the costs for a company in bringing on a new employee, we want to give you a 25 percent rebate on that payroll withholding costs.”
Government should not be acting as a bank, said Thames, but instead should work to support a healthy business climate and use their resources to fill “market gaps,” including added support from women and minority-owned businesses.
“We know that traditionally underserved communities in distressed areas and marginalized communities do not have the same access to capital from businesses,” she said.
Thames said that DECD was partnering with AdvanceCT to recruit and retain the “core industries” that will be fundamental to a strong economy.
Denious said that Connecticut should also address “regulatory burdens” to make the state more friendly to business and develop a marketing plan to combat the perception that Connecticut is unfriendly to business.
“Right now we’re ranked at the bottom of the stack,” Denious said. “I’m not happy to report that stat. We are not seen as business-friendly. We need to improve that, and part of that is perception. It’s not all reality. I think there’s a lot of misperception.”
Connecticut’s reputation is unfairly “dinged” on items like its corporate income taxes, said Denious, adding that the state’s rates are actually “average or middle of the road” compared to the rest of the country.
He said that AdvanceCT has been working with private advisors and consultants on a marketing plan and economic growth strategy, explaining that “We have to know what our North Star is. We have to market it to ourselves first.”
Denious also said that Connecticut should make better efforts to retain more of its college graduates and attract young people to support innovation in industries.
“We retain as a state, less than 40 percent of our college graduates,” he said. “We can do a better job than that. To do that, we need to invest in our communities. We need to make them more attractive, more viable, we need to have more arts and culture.”
State Sen. Cathy Osten presses official on casinos
State Sen. Cathy Osten (D-Sprague) later pressed Thames on DECD support for a brownfield remediation project in Preston on the site of the former Norwich Hospital which the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority hopes to develop into an entertainment attraction.
Osten said that about $20 million has already been spent to clean up the site and asked that the state include an additional $7 million in a DECD bond package.
“After the state puts in $7 million more dollars of cleaning up their own mess then we would start a $400 to $600 million economic driver in eastern CT. It would be a complete game changer… Will that be in the bond package from DECD?” Osten asked.
Thames answered that she wasn’t very familiar with that particular project and that the bond package had yet to be passed.
“I think we have slated upwards of $40 million that we’re asking for in this bond budget coming up that we want to get moved forward. So that seems like an opportunity to advocate for that.”
Osten also complained that DECD has consistently left the Mohegan and Pequot tribes out of discussions regarding the eastern Connecticut economy, even though the casinos are the top two revenue providing companies to the state, Osten said.
Osten asked for DECD’s support for a bill she has introduced in the legislature that will grant the tribes exclusive rights to sports betting, expand gambling allowed in the state, and designate certain revenue generated from gambling to municipal aid.
“Is DECD on board for modernizing gaming with the Connecticut Jobs and Revenue Act that I put forward again, which will bring in more than $100 million for municipalities around the state? Even today I did not hear you talk about that and we’re in their [the tribes] backyard,” said Osten to applause from the room.
Thames responded that there had not been any effort to exclude the tribes and that they’ve been active in the Eastern Connecticut Workforce Investment Board.
“Everybody is invited to the table, and these meetings are very public and open,” Thames said. “We are doing a lot of diligence, talking to a variety of employers. We have large, medium, and small employers represented on the workforce board, so I would be open to having that dialogue and discussion with you on how we engage [the tribes] through your advocacy and leadership.”