November 12, 2018

MetroHartford Alliance's new direction focuses on economic development, revival of Hartford Chamber

HBJ Photo | Steve Laschever
HBJ Photo | Steve Laschever
MetroHartford Alliance CEO and President David Griggs is implementing a new strategy that will have the regional chamber of commerce playing a larger economic-development role.
HBJ Photo | Steve Laschever
MetroHartford Alliance President and CEO, David Griggs.
Photo | Contributed
David Griggs speaking at a recent MetroHartford Alliance event.
Andy Bessette, Board Chairman, MetroHartford Alliance

David Griggs

President and CEO, MetroHartford Alliance

Previous leadership roles:
Greater Minneapolis St. Paul Regional Economic Development Partnership, Vice President of Business Investment and Research and Vice President of Business Investment

Buffalo Niagara Enterprise, Business Development Director

Bachelor's degree in urban planning and regional analysis, State University of New York, Buffalo State College

Master's degree in planning, University at Buffalo

When a large New England Coca-Cola bottler announced plans last month to invest nearly $65 million in an East Hartford production line and a new office and distribution facility in South Windsor, what went unreported was the behind-the-scenes involvement of a newcomer to the region: David Griggs, CEO of the MetroHartford Alliance.

Griggs and his team organized conference calls and meetings between Coca-Cola of Northern New England and area real estate and government officials, and continue to work with the New Hampshire-based company.

It's the kind of role the Alliance, an amalgam of a chamber of commerce and economic development organization, has played in the past, at least to an extent.

But now the organization is looking to significantly ramp up those efforts as part of a new strategic direction, in which it will act more like a private economic development agency.

"We're going to do some things that maybe haven't been done here in a while, or if they have been done, we'll do them more aggressively," Griggs said.

The plan includes an internal restructuring with new leadership staff, beefing up recruiting strategies and an unprecedented level of travel to sell Greater Hartford across the country.

The Alliance is also spinning out its chamber function, bringing back the old Hartford Chamber of Commerce name it hasn't used for 17 years.

The aim is to recruit new members, which it calls "investors," of all sizes at a time when chambers across the state struggle to maintain their ranks. The Alliance, for example, shed approximately 10 percent of its membership over the past 22 months, to just under 500. Griggs said he hopes to correct that as soon as possible through renewed outreach efforts.

Separating the Alliance's key functions will allow for a distinct focus on each. Both organizations will also have their own soon-to-be hired leader reporting to Griggs.

Another new position, a research director, will also be added. That person will gather data and intel that informs the Alliance's recruitment and marketing efforts. Griggs, known for his data-driven strategies, said questions that director may tackle include: How does Greater Hartford compare with other U.S. metros that compete for companies in the same key industries? How do corporate executives in major cities across the country perceive Hartford and what informs those opinions?

MetroHartford Alliance Chairman Andy Bessette said the organization isn't changing its mission or core functions, it just wants to do each of them better.

"When we went to search for a new leader, we said 'we don't want to be just a chamber, we want to be a world-class regional economic development organization,' " said Bessette, who is also the chief administrative officer of The Travelers Cos.

The best value the Alliance can provide to its investors, whether they have a few employees or thousands, is to help build a stronger regional economy, he said.

"Talk to any of the big companies' CEOs around here, they all support that," Bessette said. "Having a strong urban core is critical to the success of the region."

How will the Alliance, which reported $5.1 million in revenue in 2017, pay for its new initiatives?

Bessette said Travelers and some other large investors — who pay higher dues than smaller members — have agreed to increase their financial commitments by just over 10 percent. The Alliance, which eliminated some positions to make money available for new hires, also plans to compete for state economic development funding.

"Clearly we're seeing what we want to see," Bessette said of Griggs' efforts.

Though it's seen a 2018 membership dip that will affect its largest revenue source, dues payments, the Alliance last year posted its highest dues revenue since at least 2015, its financials show, improving by 60 percent year over year.

Griggs says he's confident in the Alliance's financial position and potential.

"I wouldn't have moved my family here if I didn't feel the financial position and the investor base was strong," he said.

Road show

Griggs is well-networked nationally with corporate real estate and government-incentives advisors, stemming from his previous economic development positions in Minnesota and upstate New York.

In fact, that's how the Coca-Cola deal happened. Griggs received a call in June from an incentives-advisor acquaintance who was working on the Coca-Cola bottler's behalf shopping for sites.

That led to phone calls and Alliance-organized meetings in Hartford.

"You need a convener-coordinator, and someone to kind of bird dog it," Griggs said. "They don't want to navigate who they should put in a room to make a deal happen."

The deal represents Griggs' first win in Hartford and he's planning for many more. He said he shares any due credit with his staff and various partners, such as state and municipal officials who participated in meetings.

However, even with a well-connected leader, not every deal is going to fall into the Alliance's lap.

They've got to do the legwork to become even better connected and remain so.

So Griggs is beefing up the travel budget to a level the Alliance hasn't seen since it was formed in 2001 through a merger of the Hartford Chamber of Commerce and the MetroHartford Economic Growth Council.

Six insurance-related trade shows in five states are already on the calendar for 2019. Hartford remains the insurance capital of the world, Griggs insists, and he intends to sell it that way, along with promoting the region's aerospace and other strengths. The decision by three major insurers — Aetna, The Hartford and Travelers — to pledge $50 million over five years to help keep the cash-strapped city of Hartford solvent, will also be a marketing focus.

"Tell me another city where the corporate sector is putting their money where their mouth is to keep their city alive and vibrant the way they are here?" he said.

The six trade shows are just a start. More events, which will be attended by both Alliance staff and members, will be added to the travel itinerary in the coming months, Griggs said.

The chamber's return

Shortly after starting his new job in Hartford, Griggs visited a number of small businesses, both members and nonmembers, to gauge their feelings about the Alliance.

Not all of it was positive.

"The small businesses within Hartford haven't been well represented by the Hartford Chamber," Griggs said. "We need to be more intentional in our approach."

Large companies and institutions are crucial for chambers, since they pay more dues, but that can sometimes shift the focus toward their needs and away from smaller members.

"I've absolutely heard that," Griggs said. "We need to give our whole business community a better voice."

The chamber has its strengths. It counts many of the area's biggest employers from dominant sectors like insurance, health care and manufacturing as members. It also has active working groups focused on specific key industries and a robust young-professional networking arm, HYPE, that's more than 4,000 members strong.

Moving forward, the Alliance name will be used for economic-development efforts, while the chamber brand will be used for chamber events and activities.

Griggs said the new strategy is a long-term one.

"To do economic development, you can't be in it for a year. It takes years to develop the pipeline, it takes years to develop the relationships between this organization and other organizations around the world that we need to be able to have a dialogue with," he said.

With a new strategy and structure, that work begins in earnest for the Alliance in 2019.

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