By Kevin Zimmerman, published in Westchester & Fairfield County Business Journals, January 9, 2021
Connecticut’s efforts at attracting new businesses may have been knocked down by Covid-19 — but only temporarily.
So says Peter Denious, president and CEO of AdvanceCT, the state government’s economic development entity that formerly was known as the Connecticut Economic Resource Center. That rebranding, designed to reflect its mission of collaborating more closely with the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD) to drive business recruitment and retention, looked to be just the first of AdvanceCT’s momentous moves when it was announced last February.
And then, of course, “We got thrown the pandemic curveball,” Denious said.
“We spent several months focusing on something that wasn’t our ‘day job,’ as I call it,” he told the Business Journal. “Instead we got involved with the Reopen Connecticut Advisory Group — I was a part of its business committee — that was put together to advise the governor on how to reopen businesses during the initial peak of the pandemic.”
Denious said his committee, chaired by Oni Chukwu, the executive chairman of Norwalk-based Aventri, spent much of its time canvassing businesses and their trade associations, organizing that feedback and sharing it with the broader group.
“Obviously everyone’s priority was to focus on how to get the state back up and running,” he said. “But now our focus is back on our original mission, to help companies that are here to grow and expand and to recruit companies to come to the state.”
Marketing plays a key role in AdvanceCT’s strategy, he said. “We have to make sure our value proposition is straight, that it’s industry-specific.” That has been a part of the state’s economic development game plan since Gov. Ned Lamont took office; DECD Commissioner David Lehman has targeted such sectors as tech, financial services, manufacturing (including aerospace and defense), life sciences, and health care as those ripest for exploration.
The long-held perception of Connecticut as not being “business friendly” is still one that is being overcome, Denious said. “We’re focusing now on things we can do to help make our state more attractive to business,” he said.
Part of that effort is the restructuring of the Connecticut Property Transfer Act, which requires the state to provide regulations that would obligate owners of environmentally challenged properties to clean up toxic spills and other forms of pollution. Such changes reportedly could create as many 27,000 jobs and result in the sale of some 4,200 properties.
“That helps us to say, ‘Hey, look, we are making progress on something that’s been really burdensome and costly,’” he said.
The state is also refocusing on the evergreen issue of licensing and permitting, which “has long been a cumbersome issue,” Denious said. It is also “very complicated,” meaning that AdvanceCT and DECD are still in the analysis stage; an official strategy for alleviating those labyrinthine processes could come before the end of the year.
Also reflecting its “new year, new purpose” credo is the fact that AdvanceCT recently has added 11 employees, including business development specialists. “We’re a lot further along in being proactive versus reactive,” he said, “and it’s beginning to pay dividends.”
Those dividends include some 65 potential relocations that are currently in the organization’s pipeline, up to 30 of which he characterized as “front and center, very active — there’s a lot of discussion going on.”
Denious said the much-commented upon exodus from New York to Connecticut — “Tens of thousands of people have moved or changed their address to the state of Connecticut in the last few months,” Lamont said in October — “also works in our favor. (The pandemic) has caused a lot of people to rethink their expansion plans or what their real estate footprint might be.”
While “We do want a vibrant New York — Fairfield County and southwestern Connecticut in general benefit from that,” Denious said, “a lot of people are voting with their feet. Companies may ultimately decide to keep their headquarters in New York City but open a satellite office here, and the future of the new work-from-home model is still an open question.”
Even so, “These projects take months to land,” he said. “It’s typically a beauty contest with multiple states involved. But we really are all in this together — nationally, regionally, and within our state.” Some factors, such as labor and energy costs, will always be part of the discussion, he added.
AdvanceCT also remains committed to helping retain companies that are already here, with a renewed focus on small businesses. “They make up 99% of our businesses, and the (pandemic’s effect on them) has been absolutely devastating. It’s incredibly important for us to help our Main Streets and our municipalities get across the chasm.”
As for the unveiling of AdvanceCT’s and DECD’s a long-term economic strategy, originally expected last spring, Denious said, “We were pretty close to that being launched when the pandemic hit. We’re now in the midst of reevaluating and recasting our priorities, working with the business community and our municipalities, as well as the governor and the state. It’s on the docket for 2021.”