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Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Mike Vezzola says the North Central Connecticut Chamber of Commerce’s new headquarters at Enfield Square has given the organization greater visibility.

If a long-discussed tribal casino takes shape in East Windsor, Conn., the town of Enfield would find itself in an intriguing geographic spot between two destination casinos — which could bring benefits in a number of ways, Mike Vezzola says.

“It’s still going through a large permitting process, but if the casino does wind up coming to East Windsor, we’re right smack dab in the middle of MGM Springfield and that proposed East Windsor site, so the hope here is that Enfield can become a little bit more of a destination,” said the executive director of the North Central Connecticut Chamber of Commerce during a recent conversation at the chamber’s office in the mall known as Enfield Square.

“It’ll certainly create a lot of runoff for hotels and restaurants,” he went on. “We have a plethora of great restaurants, stores, and activities right at our fingertips. We need to build on those things and make sure the right pieces are set in place, and certainly the town is doing its part to try and see that through. We’re excited for what’s on the horizon over the next five to 10 years.”

As a border town that may eventually be flanked by two casinos, Enfield is, in many ways, at a crossroads — one that town officials hope will be bolstered by a new train platform in the Thompsonville neighborhood.

Earlier this month, the Town Council unanimously voted to transfer $670,000 from the general fund into a separate fund for the development of a train platform in Thompsonville, a project that has been 15 years in the making and is expected to attract traffic to town and give residents and businesses more reason to relocate or stay there.

Other financial hurdles need to be cleared, as the total cost of a platform would be around $2.5 million. A full train station could follow down the road, at a cost of tens of millions; Enfield is just one of several train-stop communities in the Nutmeg State waiting for DOT action on such projects. In Enfield, town officials say any upgrade will bring a number of economic benefits, particularly for Thompsonville itself, which has been the focus of a planned revitalization project for some time.

The town implemented a tax increment financing (TIF) plan in Thompsonville and the Enfield Square area earlier this year. TIF is an economic-development tool that allows municipalities to use tax revenues generated from new capital investment to assist in a project’s financing.

“We have a plethora of great restaurants, stores, and activities right at our fingertips. We need to build on those things and make sure the right pieces are set in place, and certainly the town is doing its part to try and see that through.”

Patrick McMahon, CEO of the nonprofit Connecticut Main Street Center, who was hired by the town as a consultant in January to help revitalize Thompsonville, told legislative and business leaders at a recent economic-development breakfast that Enfield leaders envision significant private investment in new business ventures, redevelopment of historic properties, and new public infrastructure.

“Hopefully, the new TIF project will bring some revitalization to that specific area, especially with the commuter rail between New Haven and Springfield,” Vezzola told BusinessWest. “We’re one of the primary stops on that rail, and they’re hoping to get the platform built in the next couple of years.”

Pipeline to Progress

At the same time, Enfield has seen growth in recent years in its manufacturing, distribution, and warehousing sectors, while Asnuntuck Community College (ACC) — which hosted the recent breakfast — has built a reputation as a manufacturing-education leader through its Advanced Manufacturing Technology Center (AMTC).

Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont and other guests toured the space, speaking to students and taking in the 11,000-square-foot machining lab with its 90 CNC and manual machines, the state-of-the-art additive manufacturing lab, and other high-tech training areas.

Enfield at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1683
Population: 44,654
Area: 34.2 square miles
County: Hartford
Residential Tax Rate: $34.23
Commercial Tax Rate: $34.23
Median Household Income: $67,402
Median Family Income: $77,554
Type of Government: Town Council, Town Manager
Largest Employers: Lego Systems Inc., MassMutual, Retail Brand Alliance, Enfield Distribution Center
* Latest information available

With programs that get students working at good-paying manufacturing jobs in two years or even one in many cases, ACC — and, by extension, its town — has become a promising answer to workforce needs at area plants, which have long lamented persistent skills gaps.

Asnuntuck has forged partnerships and talent pipelines with area manufacturers and businesses including Pratt & Whitney, Sikorsky, Eppendorf, and Stanley Black & Decker, among others, contributing to a 98% job-placement rate for AMCT graduates.

“With more than 25,000 skilled workers needed in the next two decades, the advanced manufacturing technology centers at Connecticut community colleges offer the opportunity for people of all ages and backgrounds to find a rewarding career in our state,” said Connecticut State Colleges and Universities President Mark Ojakian, who participated in the tour.

The rise in Enfield’s manufacturing reputation coincides with retail struggles, particularly in Enfield Square, where the only remaining anchor is Target. However, numerous small stores still call the property home, and Party City made a major investment there two years ago.

“The mall is very open to interpretive ways of using their retail space,” Vezzola said, the chamber’s presence there being just one example. “We get a lot of foot traffic in here, community members looking for referrals to some of our members or just information about who we are and what we do and how that benefits the community. Certainly, we’re here and excited to help facilitate any potential new clientele the mall might see in the future.”

While Enfield hasn’t attracted many new large retail establishments over the past year, the community continues to be a haven for sole proprietors, he noted.

“With more than 25,000 skilled workers needed in the next two decades, the advanced manufacturing technology centers at Connecticut community colleges offer the opportunity for people of all ages and backgrounds to find a rewarding career in our state.”

“These are folks who have their own businesses and work from home, whether it’s social-media development or graphic design, things of that nature,” he said. “A lot of young people are starting these businesses — and we’re excited that they want to put their talents and work skills to use right here.”

So excited, in fact, that the chamber is hoping to launch a young professional networking group next year as a subsidiary of the chamber.

“We want to encourage other younger folks who might not necessarily know how to navigate creating their own business or are looking for a new opportunity to learn and develop, so it’ll be a bit of an educational piece as well as a networking piece,” Vezzola explained. “That’s a big focus of what we do; we’re continuing to encourage our businesses to help each other, utilize each other, and benefit each other the best way they can.

“We peg ourselves on changing with the times, and certainly the scope of what a chamber does is completely different now than it was 20 years ago,” he added. “We’re just trying to stay relevant and active and evolve with the times.”

Life on the Border

Vezzola understands, too, the potential for his chamber and its members to make connections across the state line as well.

“Being a border town, I think it helps us get some exposure over the border in Massachusetts for our businesses and vice versa, and we’re considering some partnerships with chambers in Western Massachusetts to maybe do some cross-border development with each other, with networking groups,” he said. “Again, it’s about always evolving and just trying to do the best we can with what we’ve got here.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Berkshire County

Designs on the Future

Jonathan Butler, left, and Benjamin Lamb

Jonathan Butler, left, and Benjamin Lamb discuss the plan at a recent public forum.

Jonathan Butler knows what happens to a lot of reports, and he’s determined to avoid that fate.

“This wasn’t intended to be just a two-year study that ends up as a report that sits on a shelf,” he said, referring to Berkshire Blueprint 2.0, an 80-page action plan of sorts for the Berkshire County economy. “It very much means to be a new look at our economy, a new baseline for where we are that identifies challenges we have in different areas and action steps needed to move forward.”

The project, the successor to the original Berkshire Blueprint released in 2007, was overseen by 1Berkshire, the regional economic-development agency Butler serves as president and CEO.

The report’s most notable feature is how it breaks down the economy into five ‘clusters’ — advanced manufacturing, the creative economy, food and agriculture, healthcare, and hospitality and tourism — and then lays out the challenges facing each cluster, who some of the main stakeholders are, and a series of ‘action steps’ aimed at spurring economic growth.

“We’ve made a process that’s accountable to itself and the stakeholders,” Butler told BusinessWest. “We have a small-business economy in the Berkshires, with a lot of business sectors, and approaching it from this vantage point is a helpful way to establish more creative problem solving and open up doors to more scalability for our economy.”

He admitted there are far more than five key clusters in the region’s economy, specifically citing education, financial services, and e-commerce as three others that may be woven into future iterations of the blueprint. But 1Berkshire had to start somewhere, and chose clusters that import wealth — in other words, bring money into the region from outside — and have shown growth over the past decade with the potential to scale up further.

“It’s all about getting different businesses outside of their silos to create more collaboration, more interactivity — to create an environment where things can take off organically.”

‘Scalability’ is a word that comes up repeatedly with Butler, who unveiled the plan at a recent, well-attended public forum alongside Benjamin Lamb, 1Berkshire’s economic development director.

“We’ve lived through the dialogue of a declining economy and job loss, and the narrative for many years has been to bring more jobs into the region,” he explained. “But we’ve pivoted away from that. We don’t need more jobs in the region; we need scalability for existing jobs and a better hiring pipeline. There’s a disconnect between the available workforce and the skill set and type of workforce businesses need.”

“There’s also a strong sense of momentum and progress that wasn’t here 15 years ago. That’s something to be excited about, and something we want to see evolve in the coming years.”

For evidence, Butler said there’s typically 1,300 to 2,000 jobs posted in the region at any given time, and they span the spectrum of the workforce, from entry-level to mid-career, management, and upper management. Many of the blueprint’s action steps take direct aim at identifying, connecting, and training potential workers for lucrative careers.

“A lot of employers here do a great job innovating in their sector, in their market, and are in a position where they can be scaling up, growing, expanding into new products and expanding product lines — but they’re not confident they can take the leap and scale the company because they’re not finding the workforce they need to fill those jobs.”

The Nitty Gritty

As an example of how the report dives into the five sectors, let’s consider the creative economy, which comprises segments like visual arts, performing arts, literary arts, design, film and media, and museums and cultural institutions.

The blueprint notes that the sector has seen 9.5% job growth since 2010, and the concentration of employers in this realm is 62% higher in the Berkshires than it is nationally, spurred by rapid growth in the northern part of the county.

Assets include a diversity of business establishments, institutional support by the likes of the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation (BTCF) and Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, and existing collaborative relationships across the county. Challenges, the report notes, include further engaging local residents, overcoming perceptions to demonstrate the economic importance of the arts, sustaining organizational support, and providing housing and transportation for seasonal employment.

With these factors in mind, the blueprint’s recommended action steps include convening the region’s major cultural institutions in dialogue, developing an intensive business-resources-awareness campaign, providing support to the BTCF and the Creative Commonwealth Initiative, reconvening the Creative Resources Conference, creating a partnership between the Berkshire Innovation Center and the creative community, and expanding the Assets for Artists program, a MASS MoCA initiative that provides professional-development opportunties — and housing — to emerging artists.

Collectively, that’s a mouthful, and it’s only the barest summary of just one of the five sectors. (The full report, and an executive summary, are available at 1berkshire.com.) But it suggests the copious work that must follow if the blueprint is to avoid becoming just another binder collecting dust.

“There are real challenges, and we have to work in collaboration to overcome them,” Butler said. “But there’s also a strong sense of momentum and progress that wasn’t here 15 years ago. That’s something to be excited about, and something we want to see evolve in the coming years.”

While much of the Berkshire Blueprint focuses on the five central clusters, the report also identifies several cross-cutting issues that impact the region at large, including all clusters.

For example, consistent access to high-speed broadband internet has long been a challenge in Berkshire County. Recently, actions on the state level have helped bring communities up to an equitable standard of broadband access and internet speed, but further advocacy and work are still needed, especially for residential access.

In addition, New England’s energy costs are significantly higher than they are in other regions of the country. With the retiring of regional power plants, lack of new plant construction, high cost of fuel distribution, and a limited pipeline infrastructure, the Berkshires face significantly higher energy costs compared to other areas of the country and the Commonwealth.

In the realm of transportation, gaps in public-transit services, inadequate evening bus service, a lack of coordination of private and public transportation assets, and challenges of getting to and from employment reliably are among the region’s nagging challenges.

Finally, population loss has been a persistent issue for decades in the region. 1Berkshire’s Berkshire Initiative for Growth began to lay groundwork for recruiting and retaining individuals to the region to curb this trend. While portions of the report were implemented, a number of components were laid out as the responsibility of other members of the regional business community to integrate.

“Population loss has been a mature conversation in the Berkshires,” Butler said. “The reality is, we’ll probably see another decline of some sort in the 2020 census, which would continue a half-century trend. But I’m optimistic that a lot of work done over the past five or six years will eventually shift that. We’re seeing more and more young families come to the Berkshires for a variety of reasons: quality of life, work-life balance, and the fact that our economy is quite big and diverse for such a small region.”

Then and Now

The blueprint authors were quick to note that the decades-long national decline of traditional manufacturing has had a negative effect on Berkshire County, and that the departures of long-time major employers such as General Electric and Sprague Electric devastated the local economy.

“For too long, the narrative has been that our best days were behind us, confined to faded newsprint and wistful memory,” they note. However, “that narrative is out of date. For several years, Berkshire County leadership has felt a sense of cautious optimism that the tide is turning. New buildings, businesses, and partnerships are springing up everywhere. With the knowledge that Berkshire County has seen $1 billion in investment over the last three years, the writing is on the wall: the days of doom and gloom are over. The new Berkshire narrative is about growth and opportunity in a diversified regional economy, and there is room for everybody at the table.”

That’s optimistic talk for sure, and Butler believes it, noting that he and his wife are in their late 30s, want to stay in the region for a long time, and believe it’s a good place to be.

“When we made the move home to the Berkshires in our late 20s, we saw a lot of potential,” he told BusinessWest — along with plenty of challenges. “But the narrative then and what we see happening in the future are different — and that’s become a more mainstream idea now.”

An idea that, with any luck, will do much more than sit on a shelf.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

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