Can shoreline businesses and towns join together to grow jobs and spur the economy?
State Sen. Ted Kennedy Jr. (D-12th District) and the Shoreline Chamber of Commerce hoped to answer that question as they hosted the first Shoreline Economic Summit last week.
“We’re only going to move forward if we work together,” Kennedy said as he set the tone for the summit. More than 150 business leaders attended the event at the Stony Creek Brewery in Branford, along with elected officials and economic consultants.
“We have a lot of things going for us—things that other parts of the country could only dream of,” Kennedy said as he spoke of the shoreline towns. However, he also acknowledged the challenging economic climate.
“What are the challenges and what are the opportunities?” Kennedy asked. “What types of businesses are succeeding and why? Do incentives work or not? What are the specific government policies and regulations that are hindering businesses?”
Facing the Challenges
“We are all shoreline business owners, we are here to help each other,” said co-host Sarah Bishop Dellaventura, representing the Shoreline Chamber of Commerce. Bishop is the marketing director for the family-owned Bishop’s Orchards in Guilford.
“We want to hear from you,” Dellaventura told the business people. “We want people to network. We all face the same business challenges and opportunities.”
The goals of the summit were to identify common barriers to business growth, discuss how government and business can work together, formulate a local business advocacy agenda, and identify strategies for collective action.
Three panels, each comprised of four business leaders from diverse fields, addressed issues throughout the two-hour summit. Time for networking was offered before and after the session. Attendees were also asked to fill out a survey to help focus on specific concerns.
A number of Branford elected officials and economic advisors attended the summit including: State Rep. Lonnie Reed (D-Branford); First Selectman Jamie Cosgrove; Terence Elton, the town’s economic development director; Perry Maresca, chair of the Economic Development Commission; Ed Lazarus, co-chair of the Shoreline Chamber of Commerce; and Ed Meyer, the former state senator in the 12th District.
Panel One: Transportation and Taxes
The first panel, pictured above, included (from left) Steve Stewart of Brooks and Whittle Ltd. in North Branford and Guilford; Roxanne Coady of R.J. Julia Booksellers in Madison; Todd Arnold of Mt. Sinai Genetic Testing in Branford; and Joan Esneault of the Madison Beach Hotel.
Arnold, who is the managing director of Mt. Sinai Genetic Testing in Branford, said the shoreline has many advantages. “Lab space is a little bit less expensive in Branford than it is in Manhattan,” he said. He also said the area is becoming home to many bio-science and tech companies, adding “there is plenty of brain power and tech power here.”
However, he said that compared to New York City, there are not enough public transportation options. For example, he said there should be a connection between the Shoreline East Train Station in Branford and other locations in town.
Esneault, sales director at the Madison Beach Hotel, said tourism brings in $14 billion in revenue for the state each year. “Tourism is a critical component for the Connecticut economy,” she said. “The hotels are a huge economic driver for all the communities they’re in.”
However, she said Connecticut hotels pay 15 percent occupancy tax, which is one of the highest in the country, even higher than New York City. She said the occupancy tax goes to the general fund, with a small portion for marketing tourism. She would like to see a fixed amount go back to the tourism businesses.
Another challenge she faces is finding housing and transportation for seasonal workers, especially college interns.
Coady, who founded R.J. Julia Booksellers, said there should be an earned income credit for small businesses. She said when she opened the Madison store 25 years ago, there were 9,000 independent bookstores, now there are only 1,500.
She said the economy is difficult for small business owners.
“The quality of life here for many of us here is something that’s wonderful and important to preserve, but it has to be on a fiscally sound basis,” Coady said. “I would hope that the state would run their business like most of you run your businesses.”
Second Panel—Searching for Skilled Workers
The second panel, pictured above, included (from left) Hugo Vivero of Wilson Arms in Branford; Josh Geballe of Core Informatics in Branford; Bud Torello of Progressive Benefits Solutions in Branford; and Kevin Myatt of Yale New Haven Hospital.
Vivero, the owner and CEO of Wilson Arms, said it’s not easy finding skilled workers for his manufacturing business. “People who are working with their hands just don’t exist anymore,” he said. Wilson Arms, which manufactures gun barrels, needs a specific type of skills for its expanding business. Wilson Arms moved to Branford in 2013.
Vivero said schools are not providing enough technical training to replenish the workforce. He said it’s important to tell students they can make a good living by going to a technical school and working in manufacturing. “It is ok to be a machinist. It is ok to be a tool-maker,” he said.
Vivero said that sometimes it’s hard to justify keeping his company in Connecticut because of high costs and the lack of skilled workers. “We need to think very hard about how we’re going to fix these problems,” he said.
Geballe, CEO of Core Informatics, is also looking for skilled employees. The company, which started 10 years ago with 15 employees, now numbers about 100. The tech company recently added another search method to its recruitment efforts, erecting a billboard on I-95 to advertise for software engineers.
“We’ve been growing very rapidly,” Geballe said, adding that they started with 15 employees and now have nearly 100. “The search for talent for software engineers is a real challenge, not just here but everywhere,” Geballe said.
The company provides web-based date management software to bio-tech and other industries.
“Branford is a very strategic and advantageous benefit for us,” Geballe said, adding that shoreline living can be an enticement for software engineers. He said that the cost of living is a relative concept, and that housing prices are more affordable here than Manhattan and Silicon Valley.
“We have a real responsibility to celebrate all the good things we have going for us,” Geballe said.
Third Panel: Fix the Economy
The third panel, from left, included Marietta Lee of The Lee Company in Westbook and Essex; Dave DeMaio of Munger Construction in Branford; Victor Cassella, of American Polyfilm Inc. in Branford, and Ed Crowley of the Stony Creek Brewery in Branford.
“We need to have a healthy economy in Connecticut for our businesses to grow,” Lee said. “We need to have business-friendly taxes.”
Lee, who is known for being outspoken, is vice-president of the family- owned Lee Company, which employs about 1,000 workers. They manufacture micro- hydraulics for the space, automotive and medical industries.
She said this type of summit is a good start but there are many challenges.
“None of this means squat until Connecticut gets its house in order,” she said, adding that the state needs to reduce spending and cut taxes.
Lee said businesses are moving out of Connecticut because other states are wooing them. She said it’s going to take a long time to fix the Connecticut economy. “It’s up to those of us in this room to stick together and make it happen,” she said.
DeMaio, President of Munger Construction in Branford, said the company is looking for skilled workers since many of the long-time employees are retiring. He said they can train prospective workers, but he wishes the state would offer tax credits to companies who do their own training.
Cassella told the audience that American Polyfilm had recently moved to a new building in Branford, one built by Munger Construction.
Crowley, founder and president of Stony Creek Brewery, said working together is vital. “You have to network. You have to come to these meetings,” he said.
Crowley said the brewery is now distributing in Massachusetts, and will begin distributing in New York in the fall, adding that the brewery has become a popular tourist attracting in its first year.
Crowley said the shoreline has a lot to offer. “There’s nothing that’s going to stop the shoreline form being the next Hamptons,” he said in regard to tourism. “The thing it lacks is transportation.” Crowley said there should be trolley service that links the Shoreline East trains with tourist attractions.
Attract More Young Workers
Ginny Kozlowski, executive director of REX Development in New Haven, gave a snapshot of the region in terms of demographics.
She said one challenge in the greater New Haven area is that the population is aging, and fewer young people are staying in the area, resulting in a median age of 47. “We want to build more opportunity for young folks,” she said.
Kozlowski said the need for more public transportation options is another challenge. She said the Union Station in New haven is the 10th busiest Amtrak station in the country.
Kozlowski said one of the benefits in the area is the diversity of job opportunities, with healthcare, bioscience and tech companies leading the way.
“Bio science is a growing investment in the state of Connecticut and in New Haven County,” she said. New Haven County, with 59 percent, tops the percentage of bioscience jobs statewide. New London County has 13 percent and Fairfield and Hartford counties each have 12 percent.
REX Development is the regional economic development entity for 15 communities in the Greater New Haven area.
The summit will be televised on BCTV, Branford’s cable channel.