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May 27, 2024

Southeastern CT officials see opportunities to grow the state’s ‘blue economy’

PHOTO | CONTRIBUTED Paul Whitescarver, a retired Navy captain and former commanding officer of the Naval Submarine Base in Groton, now serves as the executive director of seCTer, a private nonprofit that supports economic development in New London County.

The $310 million State Pier Terminal in the Port of New London isn’t much to look at.

In fact, it resembles a big empty cement parking lot with two large industrial cranes. Built with money invested by the Connecticut Port Authority, Eversource Energy and Ørsted, a multinational energy company based in Denmark, the pier stands on 700 steel piles that literally support the massive parts delivered to build giant wind turbines used in offshore wind projects.

That includes parts that were delivered on May 1, when a Rolldock Storm heavy-load carrier arrived with the first delivery of tower sections for Revolution Wind, an offshore wind project that will generate enough energy to power more than 350,000 homes in Connecticut and Rhode Island.

Revolution Wind will consist of 65 wind turbines located 32 miles southeast of the Connecticut coastline. It’s expected to be operational in 2025.

R.T. Hamilton Brown

R.T. Hamilton Brown, director of economic development strategy for the Southeastern Connecticut Enterprise Region, or seCTer, says the state has done a good job developing and promoting its offshore wind industry, but could do more to support and develop the “blue economy” in the region.

SeCTer is a private nonprofit that supports economic development in New London County, an area with a significant blue economy that has evolved along the Thames River since before Connecticut was even a state.

What began with whaling and the shipping of goods, now includes submarine building at General Dynamics Electric Boat, research facilities like the Coast Guard Research and Development Center and UConn campus at Avery Point, and even the Marine Science Magnet High School.

Investigating ways to support and attract similar and related businesses and facilities could eventually boost both the region and the state’s overall economy.

Brown and other seCTer officials this year pushed state lawmakers to approve a bill that would have required the Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD) to produce a blue economy study, which proponents say could put the state out in front of others seeking to lure the same types of businesses.

Lawmakers didn’t end up voting for the proposal, but they did approve legislation (House Bill 5432) in the recently completed session that will establish a working group to develop an economic development and tourism plan for the Mystic area — including the towns of Groton, New London and Stonington.

That bill, though, doesn’t mention the blue economy.

Of Connecticut’s eight counties, New London has the fourth-largest economic impact, recording a gross domestic product of $18.8 billion in 2022, which accounted for 6.8% of the state’s $276.7 billion economy, according to U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis data.

‘Doing great things’

According to the London School of Economics and Political Science, the blue economy consists of many things, including “maritime shipping; fishing and aquaculture; coastal tourism; renewable energy; water desalination; undersea cabling; seabed extractive industries and deep-sea mining; marine genetic resources; and biotechnology.”

Most of those are already represented along the state’s shoreline and on the shores of the Thames, but seCTer officials see the potential for much more growth — if the state would get behind the effort in a more coordinated manner.

SeCTer has already done some of the legwork. As the lead economic development resource for 22 municipalities and boroughs in southeastern Connecticut, it helped develop and advance the region’s Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy. The organization also provides access to capital, offering small-business lending programs and seCTerRise, a grant program designed to “help businesses at any stage of the business lifecycle.”

Its programs are state and federally funded.

SeCTer also has produced a video, available on its website (, to highlight the various industries and companies in the region, and created a map pinpointing the state’s real estate assets for the offshore wind industry.

Joe Violette

Yet, Joe Violette, business retention and expansion specialist for seCTer, says the state could do more. He notes that the approved bill to create an economic development plan for the Mystic area “is largely concerned with transportation and getting people in and out of the area, because in the summer months this place is very busy” due to its many tourist attractions.

While tourism is “serious economic development,” seCTer is seeking a discussion on the impact of the broader blue economy.

“What we’re talking about is way more broad in terms of statewide implications across any town that has coastline or access to coastline, via the Connecticut River or the Thames River,” he said.

“What opportunities can the state provide through recruitment of businesses or potential expansion opportunities by loosening of requirements or tax credit opportunities or workforce-related opportunities?” Violette asked. “That’s why we had the idea to propose a study by DECD of communities within proximity of the state’s coastline and waterways, to help grow these businesses, or help prop up the next ThayerMahan or other businesses that the average person may not know of, but have a huge impact and are doing great things.”

If you didn’t get the ThayerMahan reference, it sort of proves his point. The Groton-based developer of autonomous maritime surveillance technology is hardly a household name. But the 165-employee company has been thriving, having recently secured $20 million in funding from private investors, while its annual revenues approach $100 million.

ThayerMahan’s technology includes two autonomous maritime sensing systems, called Outpost and SeaWatch, that have both military and commercial uses in detecting in detail what is below the ocean’s surface.

‘More than just offshore wind’

Brown, seCTer’s director of economic development strategy, says the upgraded State Pier is an example of what can be accomplished when the state works with blue economy industries.

The pier “can support more weight than any terminal on the East Coast,” Brown said. “This is the most advanced marine terminal probably in the country just because it’s so new.”

The state also organized the Groton-based Connecticut Wind Collaborative, a nonprofit designed to work collaboratively across state agencies and state lines to advance the regional supply chain and the workforce needed to meet the growing demand for wind energy.

On May 1, a Rolldock Storm heavy-load carrier arrived at the New London State Pier with the first delivery of tower sections for Revolution Wind, an offshore wind project that will generate enough energy to power more than 350,000 homes in Connecticut and Rhode Island.

In April, the collaborative hired its first executive director and tripled its board of directors to 15 members. Among those added to the board was Paul Whitescarver, a retired Navy captain and former commanding officer of the Naval Submarine Base in Groton who now serves as seCTer’s executive director.

Whitescaver said other states have taken notice of Connecticut’s collaborative efforts with Rhode Island and Massachusetts on offshore wind.

However, as impressed as Brown is by the state’s offshore wind efforts, he adds a note of caution.

“It’s more than just offshore wind,” he said of the blue economy. “Offshore wind is just part of it. It’s just that our activity around offshore wind has led us to the point in realizing that, as a strategy, we can and should be really leaning into what the blue economy is, and how important it is to the region.”

Brown said seCTer is working with a consulting firm to identify sites, even those not on the waterfront, “that could be activated economically” by the blue economy.

A blue economy study could have resulted in “incentives, or whatever the instrument might be, to encourage economic activity where there’s really a lot of sites that are doing nothing,” he said. “There’s a lot of opportunity there.”

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