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Updated: June 3, 2019

Greater Hartford’s new economic plan contrasts ambitious vision with stark challenges

HBJ Photo | Matt Pilon Lyle Wray on Main Street in Hartford. Wray leads the Capitol Region Council of Governments, which is one of three regional groups that crafted a fresh strategic plan for the Greater Hartford economy.

Greater Hartford’s economy faces monumental challenges in the years ahead, but that’s not stopping regional planners from targeting ambitious growth goals over the next half-decade.

What might be the most in-depth economic plan for Greater Hartford in years was quietly published a few months ago, receiving little publicity because it still needs key approvals from state agencies.

However, the lack of fanfare thus far belies its contents and vision for the region.

The so-called Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS) — developed by the Capitol Region Council of Governments (CRCOG), Hartford Foundation for Public Giving and MetroHartford Alliance in conjunction with outside consulting firms — lays bare many of the weaknesses and threats facing Greater Hartford, but also sets aggressive goals for the region to accomplish over a five-year period starting in 2020:

• Population growth of 3 to 4 percent;

• Real GDP growth of at least 5 percent;

• Slashing, by one-third or more, Black and Hispanic poverty, unemployment and income disparities, compared to white and non-Hispanic residents.

It’s a tall order for a region whose population and per-capita GDP have been essentially flat since the end of the last recession, and in a state with some of the steepest income inequality in the nation.

Despite that, the leaders of the triumvirate that created the new CEDS all say their targets are achievable, and they’re placing a heavy focus on strengthening, rejiggering and investing in — potentially to the tune of tens of millions of dollars — the region’s workforce-development strategy.

And while some of the plan contains common-sense strategies like staying in better contact with area companies, it also goes out on a limb with some recommendations.

For example, it calls for a “regional funding district” that would raise tax revenue to pay for quality-of-life and infrastructure improvements in Greater Hartford. It’s a similar system used in other regions across the country like those anchored by Oklahoma City, Pittsburgh and Denver.

Here, it would likely mean charging some additional tax (such as a sales tax) to the approximately 38 area towns to help pay for transit facilities, parks, museums, cultural institutions and other public places.

Ironically, the same proposal was included in a regional economic-development plan created 20 years ago, but it went nowhere. That speaks to how difficult it is to act on big ideas, said Lyle Wray, executive director of the Capitol Region Council of Governments, the organization that would take the lead in pushing such an initiative.

It sounds like a tax that could be controversial in the legislature, but Wray said some U.S. regions that have enacted such a system, including Seattle, were once facing their own steep challenges, and are now leaders in population and economic growth.

Jay Williams, President, Hartford Foundation

Regardless of how long it takes to garner political support for the new plan, Wray and his co-collaborators vow the CEDS won’t “sit on a shelf.”

Hartford Foundation President Jay Williams, a former mayor of Youngtown, Ohio, part of a region with bigger economic struggles than Greater Hartford’s, said he urges perspective and leaving room for some optimism.

“This is a region whose momentum is shifting toward an upward trajectory,” Williams said. “There are very real issues with education funding, the state budget, and infrastructure, but none of them in my mind are insurmountable over the course of time with a very intentional, deliberate, thoughtful and collaborative approach.”

Even if the region falls short of the goals by 2025, Williams — who previously served as head of the U.S. Economic Development Administration — has been deeply involved in CEDS plans at the federal level, and said many regions have been shifting their focus toward workforce development.

As a result, common themes in Greater Hartford’s new CEDS involve educating and retaining talent, with a focus on underserved populations; enhancing regional amenities and quality of life in order to draw and keep that talent here; and creating a coordinated approach to attracting, retaining and expanding businesses.

Williams says Greater Hartford’s various not-for-profits, colleges and employers must work together in deeper ways to “marshal their resources” to develop new and overlooked talent.

“The collaboration and approach is more important,” he said.

An honest look

CEDS are done every five years or so in states around the country as a way for regions to qualify for U.S. Department of Commerce funding. As part of the report, the U.S. Economic Development Administration demands a “SWOT” analysis for each region.

Greater Hartford’s plan, titled “Metro Hartford Future,” doesn’t hold back on listing the challenges and threats the region faces: Sluggish-to-flat growth in GDP, wages, employment, population and new businesses; a declining number of young-adult workers; relatively high property tax rates and a dearth of housing stock for more modest incomes; relatively low high school and college attainment rates; an economy that’s disproportionately weighted toward sectors with lower-paying jobs; sharp income and employment imbalances for people of color; a lack of downtown amenities; and, of course, the state’s own looming debt crisis.

“We’re at the bottom on a whole bunch of stuff, we’re not where we need to be,” said Wray. “The place of a CEDS is to have a clear-headed assessment.”

Wray and his fellow partners say the 80-page CEDS report represents their attempt to craft just a few strategies, but ones they believe could, if enacted, have a significant impact on the regional economy.

The plan proposes initiatives that would cost tens of millions of dollars over five years.

The biggest ticket item is a $60-million to $70-million “flexible workforce skills training fund,” meant to quickly deploy capital to employers with urgent training needs.

It’s something competitor states like Rhode Island and Maryland are already doing, Wray said. The idea is to have a program in place that can help a growing employer, such as a manufacturer, staff up quickly.

“Where do you go,” Wray asked, “if you need 100 lathe operators?”

Connecticut has sought to ramp up its manufacturing workforce in recent years through programs involving colleges, employers and state agencies.

But Wray says that effort needs to be put on steroids — scaled up to make a bigger impact.

“The pieces are all there, but they may not be coordinated,” he said.

A more systematic approach to keeping the state’s many college graduates in Connecticut, by better connecting them to local employers, is second talent strategy in the CEDS.

A third talent-related recommendation is to establish a “dual-track” training model in the region, similar to systems used in Colorado, Washington and Germany, which provides a clearer path to a career with a living wage for residents who don’t attain or pursue a traditional college degree.

The dual-track model, according to the report, will be particularly important to closing racial economic disparities, since it “explicitly” targets untapped sources of potential talent, including minorities, as well as the broader population that’s not college bound.

Blocking and tackling

Greater Hartford, the CEDS says, lacks a formal business retention, expansion and attraction program, a vacuum the MetroHartford Alliance wants to fill, according to CEO David Griggs.

David Griggs, CEO, MetroHartford Alliance

Under the CEDS plan, the Alliance, with help from various partners, would ramp-up its role as a marketer, intel gatherer, business services directory, outreach coordinator and “deal flow” partner for the region in order to identify and communicate common barriers to business investment.

Griggs said that will require a coordinated approach among the Alliance, area business chambers, municipal officials and others. It will also require an estimated $6.5 million over five years for additional economic-development and other staff.

The idea is to have a process in place for gathering intel and data from companies that might be looking to make location or expansion decisions.

“It’s the blocking-and-tackling of economic development,” said Griggs, who plans to approach his investors about funding the effort. “It’s just the basic thing you need to do.”

The Alliance is already starting to collect data on decisions employees make about where they want to work. Griggs said his team has been surveying new hires at some of its largest member companies to determine how young workers view the region.

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June 3, 2019

Ambitious goals, indeed. While supportive of the intent of the CEDS, I have questioned the ability of a regional plan to achieve goals reducing disparities in poverty, income, and employment by one third in five years. Inclusiveness is the main theme of the strategy but little to indicate how that's going to be achieved. I'm glad to hear that this will not be a "POTS" (plan on the shelf) and, In the spirit of transparency, I'd like to call for an annual report to the public relative to implementation progress.

June 3, 2019

What do the Springfield and southeastern Connecticut convention centers have in common? A casino within walking distance. So where does Connecticut place its third casino? East Windsor. You want to improve convention business, one way is to take away the casino advantage from your prime competitors. But it's a good bet the tribes have made certain that won't happen.

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