Regional Approach Needed to Compete Globally


By Jeanne Goodman, Norwalk Citizen News

If the Fairfield County area is to continue to compete in the global market and avoid becoming an "economic cul-de-sac," its municipalities must unite and overcome demographic challenges primarily related to its aging population and influx of immigrants, according to presenters at the Greater Norwalk Chamber of Commerce's Regional Roundtable.

During the event, which took place Sept. 13 at the Continental Manor, the three featured speakers addressed the region's key issues and trends, challenges that lie ahead and components of the One Coast, One Future initiative. The program featured Christopher P. Bruhl, the president and chief executive officer of The Business Council of Fairfield County; Joseph M. Carbone, the president and CEO of The WorkPlace, Inc.; and Paul S. Timpanelli, the president and CEO of the Bridgeport Regional Business Council.

Bruhl gave an overview of the "character of the county" dating back to the 1950s and the numerous issues facing the region in general.

Since World War II, he said, Norwalk has evolved from being a manufacturing/residential community to having a much more diverse office-and-retail-based economy while retaining its recreational and residential components. Today the population of Fairfield County is about 884,050, and the work force is 475,996, he said. The county's rate of unemployment is consistently less than the state's and the national average, which is "not necessarily a good thing," Bruhl cautioned. "Our unemployment level is low because we have a worker shortage, not because we have a booming economy. So the unemployment rate is a constraint on our growth, not something we should be patting ourselves on the back for 'aren't we doing a good job.'"

Fairfield County's unemployment rate is currently 4.4 percent, the state's is 4.9 percent and the nation's is 5.1 percent, according to figures he presented.

The county-wide intra-regional commuter culture is stronger than ever, Bruhl said. "Not one of our major municipalities' business centers has the majority of jobs in that city held by residents of that city," he said. "That means that the economies of these cities are inherently regional. It also means it's tough to get a volunteer they're going home. They're not there at night. It means there's a disconnect between local property taxes and the local school quality and business decisions when you have the majority of the workers in a community who are residing in another community, who worry about schools and property taxes where they live, not where they work."

The region also has a very competitive work force, and the population is graying, said Bruhl. "We have dramatically more older people. So as a work force, we are older than the rest of the nation. It does translate to being more educated and more affluent, but we're older, and there's significant issues about that age."

Members of the baby boom generation are aging out of full-time roles into part-time workers and "moving into full-time consumers of services, particularly in fitness and health care," he said. The area's labor shortage will worsen because of the smaller generation that follows, Bruhl pointed out. "The generation right behind us is 15 percent smaller," he said.

The population also is "increasingly foreign born," said Bruhl. In addition, in Fairfield County in 2004, one out of three births were to foreign-born mothers, he said. "Sixty percent of those mothers were not U.S. citizens, but every single one of those babies became one."

The influx of immigrants helps to fill the labor market, but there is a "skills gap" with immigrant workers, he said. "With our immigration policies and the de facto fact of the vast number of illegal immigrants coming in, we have more low-skill than high-skill immigrants," he said.

Economists throughout the world agree on one thing, Bruhl said. "Immigration is permanent. The higher the wall, the more people die getting in, but they get in, and with our demographic shortages, we need the labor. So what we need is some kind of rational reform."

What also is needed is the recognition that institutions of higher education "are the foundation for our competitiveness," Bruhl said. College-age students "migrate to communities where they want to live and then they look for work. They're not being recruited to go there that's an earlier model. So we have to have our cities there for the competitiveness to attract, nurture and retain competitive people. If our cities aren't competitive and our communities aren't competitive, the economy is not competitive."

The achievement gap between whites and minorities remains a top issue, Bruhl said. To remain competitive in the global market, the region needs to focus more on science, technology, engineering and math, he said. "You have to be scientifically creative, technologically creative, engineering creative, mathematically not MTV creative. We're not doing that. And we've got to get going on that. Fairfield County great schools, lousy science, technology, engineering and math, just lousy."

In regard to the health care industry, he said, the region is seeing "exploding demand."

"Boomers need more," said Bruhl. "We're moving into our peak consumption years. We're retiring out our nurses, doctors and X-ray technicians." More demand, fewer providers, a decline in the quality of health care and escalating costs hover on the horizon, he said. Dealing with the health care system is a "huge opportunity for the region if we seize it and a catastrophe if we don't."

Carbone expanded on Bruhl's overview of the region, saying it includes 20 cities and towns, extending from Stratford to Greenwich along Long Island Sound and as far north as Beacon Falls. About 12,000 new jobs are created in the region every year, he said. About 25 percent of them are brand new jobs, and 75 percent of them come from replacing retirees or people who died, he said. "Our labor force the number of people in our population that are available for work is declining," said Carbone. The reason is that "more people are leaving than are coming."

People between the ages of 50 and 64 make up 42 percent of the working-age population, he said. Population growth remains low a measly .7 percent in the state, which is "too nominal," Carbone said. "As a result of this, the labor force is shrinking."

Part of providing a solution to this problem, he said, "is to look at the population that we have and begin to fortify those individuals who have greater potential, who can offer a more positive energy to the work force."

Another problem in the region is that 21 percent of the labor force does not have a high school degree, Carbone said. "There's no way you can be more naked out there, in this work force, in this economy, than if you don't at least start with a high school diploma," he said. One of the worst offenders responsible for this situation, he said, is the City of Bridgeport.

Foreign-born residents, Carbone said, are "a part of our population that we need to think of in terms of a system of education and training that will be specific to their needs so that they can respond in a very positive way to our work force needs."

The region's population "would have plummeted in the last few years were it not for the number of immigrants coming in," said Carbone. "We're clearly an attraction for them in the future, and they're critically important, so we need to begin to make some important changes in our system to respond."

Like Bruhl, Carbone noted the region's history of low unemployment and the skills gap in the work force. Thousands of jobs that are posted in this region go unfilled, he said. In and around Stamford, there are several companies with "hundreds of jobs that are available," he said. "There is not a match between the skills [available workers] have and skill demands that the market right now has."

The jobs that are being created and planned by businesses require more skill levels than ever before, Carbone said. He also predicted that more emphasis will be placed on the education and training of the work force in the future. "The whole value of the worker will grow as that worker becomes in short supply, and businesses will think of their workers as a commodity that they've got to nurture. And in doing so, we think they'll recognize that productivity growth and a smarter work force is our competitive edge."

The WorkPlace Inc. offers incentive grants to small companies in the manufacturing, health care and retail sectors, among others, "to begin to get them into the business of education and training of their work force," Carbone said.

Carbone told his audience to watch out for two new initiatives: one from the U.S. Department of Labor, the Workforce Innovation in Regional Economic Development, and an independent initiative titled the "Corridor" Project: NY-CT Alliance for Workforce & Economic Development.

Work force districts are "sort of created around political lines," he said, and the United States now has 632 of those districts, he said. "There are too many there are too many that are too small." As a result, work force issues do not progress or they have "a low level of importance on the social calendar of all the issues that we have to deal with," Carbone said. "WIRED is intended to force the system to own up to that and to redefine their districts in a way that provides maximum benefits to people and products to businesses."

The Corridor Project is a regional collaboration between Westchester and Fairfield counties, explained the Director of Marketing, Communications and Planning for The WorkPlace Inc Jo Shute during a brief telephone interview Tuesday. Both counties face similar work force challenges, and the alliance is a collaboration to work with businesses in both counties to meet the labor needs of the larger region, Shute explained.

Carbone said the Corridor Project initiative is a workforce operations effort intended to bring the area together to be more cost efficient and competitive.

Timpanelli spoke last and said that a new direction for southern Fairfield County potentially rests on the One Coast, One Future initiative, a concept that started three years ago. One Coast, One Future encompasses the 13 municipalities along the coast between Stratford and Greenwich and immediately north, he said. One of most important things Connecticut residents must recognize is "that we have 19th century jurisdictions within the 21st century environment, within the 21st century economy," Timpanelli said. Although it's one of the smallest states in the country, Connecticut has 169 municipalities and more than 500 governing bodies, he said. "That separateness highly impairs our ability to compete, and not our ability to compete Bridgeport to Stamford or Norwalk to Westport, but our ability to compete Fairfield County to Shanghai, Beijing and other parts of the world."

Regional collaboration could create "clout," additional resources and speed at which progress can be achieved, Timpanelli said. The One Coast, One Future region shares infrastructures for energy, transportation and telecommunications, and "none of those things stop at any of those borders or those barriers," he said. The region also shares a work force, health care providers, higher-education institutions, Long Island Sound, "a very dominant neighbor, New York City," and "a very ambivalent state government," he said.

"We have a state government that doesn't recognize clearly the economic impact of the county in which we all live and work" and "clearly doesn't distribute resources" in a way that recognizes and nurtures that regional economic reality, Timpanelli said.

Revenue generation within each municipality is essentially based on property taxes, he said. "We have no way to expand that base upon which we generate taxes, and we have continuing demands upon that revenue-generation base. It's silly. It's archaic. It's old. We need to change it in recognition of new realities." The region also doesn't share marketing or business recruitment, economic development, land use, human services planning or "planning on any level," Timpanelli said. There are no shared tax revenues or even "a common vision" for the region, he said.

What should be done about this? Build public awareness and link "population centers, our business communities, together in alliances that begin to benefit the wider region," Timpanelli said. He hopes the One Coast, One Future initiative will begin to get people into "at least that level of sharing a common vision."

One Coast, One Future is essentially a partnership of four entities: the Bridgeport Regional Business Council, The Business Council of Fairfield County, the Greater Norwalk Chamber of Commerce and U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays' office, Timpanelli said. "Its goals are simple and twofold: to begin to get folks to think differently about the way we define our region so we can create a better regional coalition" and to create economic growth and opportunity for the region, he said.

Timpanelli hopes that by the end of this year, One Coast, One Future will have a formalized agreement among the chief elected officials of the 13 municipalities that they are "committed to pursuing a comprehensive economic development strategy."

"We hired a consultant about three months ago," Timpanelli said. "The report of that consultant will be ready the first week of October, and the report will essentially define the economic face of this region and will help us to think more clearly about the interconnectivity resulting from that economic data that will be supplied by that consultant."

Approximately $500,000 already has been granted for the initiative by the U.S. Small Business Administration, and another $500,000 in federal funding has been "approved but not formally authorized," Timpanelli said. He hopes to see it authorized in 2007.

Timpanelli also hopes the 13 officials will then agree "that they will sit on a regular basis with their economic development professionals, with us in the chamber of commerce world, and with regional planning professionals to begin to create a formal comprehensive economic development strategy for this one-coast region."

About $300,000 will be spent over the next year to market this region "internally," he said. Development opportunities and real estate opportunities for people who live, work, develop and invest in this region will be made available, he said.

More marketing dollars will be spent for restaurants and "attractions" packages so that people "can begin to think beyond their local borders," said Timpanelli. He believes these marketing dollars will encourage people to cross the borders a bit more and "get into different modes of thinking about what they do and how they define their region."

A contract with a marketing consultant recently was signed, and the Greater Norwalk Chamber of Commerce is leading the way in developing a complete inventory of restaurants and attractions in the One Coast, One Future region, he said.

Money also will go toward an effort to create "regional Web connectivity," Timpanelli said. Over the next year and a half, the central business districts of Bridgeport, Norwalk and Stamford will be connected electronically 24 hours a day, he said. Downtown Stamford was connected in June, and downtown Bridgeport and Norwalk have been mapped, "and that connectivity will hopefully take place beginning in the next 90 days over the next 18 months," he said.

The One Coast, One Future initiative also includes a job network component, which is "money that we're investing to bring folks together in retail and other business expansion communities to further connect them with job holders and job seekers, because there's a disconnect today between where jobs exist and where people exist to fill those jobs," Timpanelli said. Job centers will have "employer guides," and a job conference and directory are to be created by the end of the calendar year, he said.

Another component involves health care. A consultant will work to "identify growth opportunities in the health care industry and begin to funnel some dollars into further growing those health care opportunities," Timpanelli said.

Mixed-Use/Mixed-Income Development in Downtown, Sept. 22
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