Officials in Stamford have for at least a decade characterized the city as the “economic engine” of Connecticut.
Each spring, a state-mandated audit reinforces their assertion.
The latest Comprehensive Annual Financial Report, which covers the 2020-21 fiscal year, describes Stamford as a “national financial center” and the “largest international trade center between New York and Boston.”
Stamford is “the state’s largest business center” and “a major retail trade center in Fairfield County” that ranks in the top 10 percent nationally for number of corporate headquarters, according to the CAFR.
The report notes that Stamford ranked seventh in Financial Times’ Top 10 Small U.S. Cities of the Future, a list released late last year — a rank derived from an analysis of 200 cities with populations of 100,000 to 350,000 that considered economic potential, business friendliness, human capital, cost effectiveness and connectivity.
Further, the CAFR states, Stamford has a “diverse economic base that includes banking, insurance, office equipment, pharmaceuticals, consumer products, digital media, information technology and retail.” And it is home to companies that research and develop chemicals, pharmaceuticals, electronic and optical products, and plants engaged in precision manufacturing, the CAFR states.
It’s true, said Joe McGee, who has worked for decades with business, civic and government leaders in economic development, tax and fiscal policy, housing, transportation, energy and environmental issues in Fairfield County and the state.
But the city is an economic engine, not the engine, McGee said.
“Stamford is one of the centers of economic growth, not the only one, but it’s significant,” said McGee, a former commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Economic Development who headed public policy and programs for the former nonprofit Business Council of Fairfield County.
“There’s no question Stamford has really grown. People think it’s job growth, but it’s not. Stamford is strongest in housing growth,” McGee said.
The Hartford area “is the largest economy in the state,” McGee said.
“It’s a little-known fact, but Hartford County’s economic output is greater than Fairfield County’s,” he said. “Hartford County is bigger geographically and has a strong economic base, with insurance, hospitals, aerospace and manufacturing. Fairfield County is smaller economically but the jobs are higher-paying, so the wealth per capita is much greater than Hartford.”
CAFR data tells how much. In 2020, the median household income in the Stamford area was $93,100, compared with $79,000 for the state.
The CAFR supports McGee’s description of Stamford as a place that derives its economic punch from housing.
“Job growth was slowing in Stamford before the last recession. It still has a strong commercial base, but it’s the housing that’s driving things,” McGee said. “The city has built housing that has attracted a younger demographic, and companies looking for younger people with tech skills. It has been an enormous boon to Stamford.”
According to the CAFR, the city led development in Connecticut in 2020-21 with more than $6 billion in projects.
In the decade that ended in 2020, more than 9,000 units were constructed in more than 50 new buildings. As of 2020, the CAFR reports, 1,540 units were under construction in seven buildings, and more than 3,200 units were proposed or approved in 14 other buildings.
They are filling up.
Apartment occupancy increased from 94 percent to 97 percent in 2020-21, according to CAFR. Rental rates remained steady – studio apartments ranged from $1,500 to $2,400 a month; one-bedrooms were $1,600 to $3,700; two-bedrooms were $1,800 to $7,000; and three-bedrooms were $2,750 to $8,700. Apartment dwellers pushed Stamford into second place, behind Bridgeport, among Connecticut’s most populous cities. Census data puts the Stamford population at 135,500.
Housing, in fact, may help fill Stamford’s increasingly empty commercial spaces, according to the CAFR.
Commercial vacancy rates are the highest in a decade: 31.4 percent in the central business district and 37.3 percent for areas outside that, the CAFR reports. Corporations have been downsizing, shrinking the average space per employee from 200 square feet to between 125 and 150 square feet.
Most vacancies are in former corporate headquarters, including Pitney Bowes, two GE Capital buildings, and Oracle. Three of the four buildings have plans to be repurposed for housing or entertainment venues, according to the CAFR.
Retail in Stamford has been recovering slowly and unevenly, but the vacancy rate for buildings that house retail remains low at 4 percent to 6 percent, the CAFR reports.
“It’s a dynamic city,” said McGee, now a member of Gov. Ned Lamont’s Task Force on Transit-Oriented Development in Fairfield County.
“It’s amazing how quickly Stamford has grown. I know there are strong neighborhood groups that are very worried about it overwhelming the city,” McGee said. “The question for Stamford now is, how much more should it grow?”