February 11, 2019
Editor's Take

A peek into Lamont's economic-development playbook

Greg Bordonaro Editor

For those interested in learning about Gov. Ned Lamont's economic-development vision, he offered a sneak peek Feb. 1, airing plans to restructure — to some degree — the Department of Economic and Community Development and appoint a Goldman Sachs executive to be the state's first unofficial commerce secretary.

But his overall strategy and the details of it may have been hiding in plain sight for weeks, or longer.

During the transition, then Gov.-elect Lamont tapped an 18-member committee to develop policies related to jobs and the economy. The group, which consisted of leaders from business, labor, workforce development and other sectors, actually finalized its recommendations in December, but they received little public airing — until now.

The committee produced an 18-page document that lays out a bold vision for the state to develop an innovation-based economic-development plan that focuses on cultivating the next generation of entrepreneurs and growth-stage companies.

It concludes that Connecticut must move away from a transactional approach to economic development (i.e. relying mainly on business incentivizes to stimulate job growth) toward a more transformational one, and it rests on three pillars: accountability in economic development, development of talent and the workforce, and encouraging an urban renaissance.

If those don't sound like groundbreaking ideas, you're right. It's common knowledge that Connecticut needs vibrant cities and a talented and well-educated workforce to compete for 21st-century jobs. The real challenge is adopting policies that help get us there in a faster, more productive way and without having to spend hundreds of millions of dollars annually to bribe companies to stay or add jobs in the state, which was a hallmark of the Malloy administration.

I agree that transactional economic development (i.e. corporate greenmail) is largely ineffective in promoting long-term growth, though Lamont has said he won't do away with business incentives entirely.

Connecticut needs a grand vision for what role it wants to play in the 21-century world economy. Focusing on innovation and technology is a smart strategy, but how are we going to do it? Well, the transition team had a laundry list of ideas that may or may not become actual state policy.

But so far, Lamont appears to be taking their work seriously.

One of their first recommendations: Appoint "a secretary-level position (Secretary of Commerce) that is empowered to oversee all economic development."

Check that off the list. Dave Lehman, a partner with investment bank giant Goldman Sachs, has been named to the dual role of DECD commissioner and senior economic advisor, essentially serving as the state's commerce secretary, Lamont said.

Another call to action: Establish a public-private partnership to run state government's economic-development duties.

Add another checkmark to the list. Lamont announced that the nonprofit Connecticut Economic Resource Center Inc. (CERC) and DECD will form a public-private partnership known as the Partnership to Advance the Connecticut of Tomorrow. CERC — whose co-chairs will include well-known business leaders Jim Smith, former CEO of Webster Bank, and Indra Nooyi, former PepsiCo Chairman and CEO — will function as the outward-facing recruitment arm on behalf of the state, and DECD will continue to support existing businesses while helping new businesses navigate state and local government.

Lamont even held his press conference announcing the changes at downtown Hartford's co-working and startup incubator site Upward Hartford, giving a nod to his focus on innovation and cities.

Rather than analyze other recommendations in the report, here are a few ideas I think are interesting. You can read the full report on Lamont's official state website (https://portal.ct.gov/governor).

• Coordinate an interagency "Grow CT Team" (i.e. Housing, Transportation, Education, Environment, and Planning) to work on economic-development initiatives when there is overlap.

• Create the position of Chief Marketing/Communications Officer under the new commerce secretary to elevate the importance of the Connecticut brand.

• Develop a regional-planning partnership with Northeast states to promote collaboration on transportation (high-speed rail, freight, tolling); high-tech infrastructure (5G); international trade; regional marketing/promotion; and workforce training/education.

• Expand the Eastern CT Manufacturing Pipeline Initiative, which is a nationally recognized workforce-development program anchored by Electric Boat, to other parts of the state and other companies.

• Create and seed with $100 million Capital Region Development Authority-like agencies for other major cities beyond Hartford.

• Advance regional talks for high-speed rail to New York City and Boston.

• Utilize colleges, the business community and entrepreneurs to develop in three to four metro areas campuses of expertise around technical skills.

• Provide all K-12 students with access to computer science.

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