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April 1, 2021 Corner Office

Successful private-sector, nonprofit leaders Highsmith and Clemons lead $200M Dixwell Avenue redevelopment

Carlton Highsmith

For almost three decades, Carlton Highsmith built one of Connecticut’s most successful minority-owned businesses and since selling his company in 2010, he’s focused on building up underserved communities through workforce training and other programs that provide new opportunities to local residents.

Now he and Erik Clemons, his philanthropic and private-sector partner, are combining their know-how yet again to take on an ambitious redevelopment plan in New Haven.

Highsmith — who founded Specialized Packaging Group, a package design and engineering firm that became one of North America’s largest manufacturers of paperboard packaging — and Clemons, who co-founded the Connecticut Center for Arts & Technology (ConnCAT), which provides job training for adults and after-school programs for students, are on a mission to revitalize New Haven’s Dixwell Avenue corridor.

The signature project is a $200 million cultural, retail, business and residential redevelopment of the 7½ acre run-down Dixwell Plaza retail strip mall. The project is being developed through ConnCAT’s new for-profit community economic development arm, ConnCORP.

Highsmith and Clemons said ConnCORP already owns 85 percent of Dixwell Plaza and they are raising money to help fund the planned development, which will include an early childcare center, banquet hall, 300-seat performing-arts center, supermarket, retail space, restaurants, greenhouses for urban farming and 160 housing units. Work is scheduled to start in the fourth quarter and will take about three years.

The development corporation’s plans also include building a new and larger facility for ConnCAT and a 40,000-square-foot entrepreneurial incubator for minority-owned businesses.

Building sustainable relationships

Highsmith’s ability to help lead such a major development stems from the success he had in the private sector.

He founded Specialized Packaging Group (SPG) in 1983 and grew a customer base that included blue-chip companies like Johnson & Johnson, Procter & Gamble, Colgate, Clorox, SC Johnson and Unilever.

SPG was recognized in 2009 as the largest minority-owned firm in the state with annual revenues over $180 million. Highsmith sold the company in 2010 and “retired” to a life of nonprofit work.

What’s his secret? He said he believes it’s important to be a builder of solid and sustainable relationships, which can only be done by establishing trust and integrity. That means keeping your word and knowing that your reputation follows you no matter where you go.

“And then you've got to have the tenacity, the staying power and the courage to relentlessly not lose focus of that vision. I’ve learned that as I reflect back over the last 40 some years,” Highsmith says.

Black-owned businesses didn’t exist in the packaging industry in the early 1980s, but he entered the sector anyway.

“There were challenges. First and foremost was credibility, being taken seriously by the clients. Even my bank,” he says.

Access to capital and financing the dream was a challenge, but Highsmith knew that he wanted to go big with his business.

“I wanted to grow it to some scale. This is where a lot of entrepreneurs fall flat. They can't transition from running the business to managing the business more strategically,” he says.

He was hands-on, engaged and involved in all aspects of the company so backing away and learning how to build a leadership team, delegate, establish compensation programs that were attractive enough to bring on top talent was a challenge.

Today, he serves on the boards of the Greater New Haven Community Foundation, Yale New Haven Health, Quinnipiac and KeyBank, where he serves on the risk and nominating and governance committees.

“He’s an amazing person and a wonderful leader,” says Jim Barger, KeyBank’s market president for Connecticut and Massachusetts. “When he sold his business in 2009, it was the largest minority-owned company in the state of Connecticut. You don’t go from starting a company to having 600 employees across the country without leading with entrepreneurial spirit. He’s the type of guy who rolls up his sleeves and gets involved.”

Next iteration of impact

After Highsmith sold his company, he and Clemons started ConnCAT, a nonprofit organization located in a 25,000-square-foot space at 4 Science Park in New Haven. ConnCAT’s mission is to bring hope to the Elm City’s underserved communities by delivering (free of charge) adult technology training and workforce development programs.

ConnCAT also offers after-school and summer digital arts and performing-arts programming. Over the past 10 years the organization has trained and placed into the New Haven workforce hundreds of previously unemployed and under-employed workers. ConnCAT has certified training programs in medical billing and coding, phlebotomy and culinary arts. Highsmith is the founding board chair, Clemons is the founding CEO.

ConnCAT recently opened a $2.5 million teaching kitchen for its culinary arts program.

Clemons recently stepped down as CEO of ConnCAT and is now executive chairman of ConnCORP, where he is actively working to raise money for the Dixwell Plaza redevelopment.

Highsmith is ConnCORP’s vice chairman, secretary and treasurer. Paul McCraven, the former senior vice president of community development for First Niagara Bank, now KeyBank, is the CEO and president.

“Three years ago, Carlton and I started thinking about the next iteration of impact that we could make,” Clemons says.

They hope to deliver a well-planned, multi-use real estate community in the Dixwell neighborhood, which faces severe unemployment, underinvestment and inadequate access to essential goods and services.

“My work with ConnCAT and ConnCORP have been, by far, the most rewarding and enriching things I’ve done in my entire life,” Highsmith said.

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