CBIA seeks to make state less business-hostile in 36 short months

 

In three years, it may be accomplished. If so, Connecticut then be among the top 20 states to do business on every major assessment list.

That’s if the Connecticut Business & Industry Association (CBIA) has its way. The organization has set business preeminence for the state as the goal of its new campaign, “CT20x17.”

“It kind of grew out of disappointment, with some of our member companies, and conversations they’ve had with our president and CEO [John Rathgeber],” says Joseph Brennan, CBIA’s senior vice president of public policy, about the campaign’s origin. “It was born out of frustration that Connecticut hasn’t been moving forward as fast as it could.”

The main, overriding concern that CT20x17 aims to address is economic stagnation, Brennan says.

“Overall, the problem is economic growth. Our economy has been growing very slowly. It’s actually shrunk” over the past several years, Brennan says.

He adds that two top reasons for the state’s lagging economic situation is its transportation infrastructure — including lack of an expanded rail service — and a workforce that lacks training for available jobs, which leaves managers and administrators with “an inability to find skilled employees for [their] businesses,” says Brennan.

Add in factors such as the high cost of housing, highway congestion, energy costs and other variables associated with doing business, and Connecticut finds itself coming up short, Brennan adds.

He points, for example, to a 2013 CNBC survey that listed the Nutmeg State 45th among states for business environment nationwide. The survey considered broad indicators such as technology and innovation, education, business friendliness, cost of living, access to capital, workforce, economy, infrastructure, cost of doing business, and quality of life. In all, 51 specific competitive measures were examined. The measures were determined with the help of input from national business groups.

While the CNBC survey ranked Connecticut high (No. 5 nationally) in the education category, it was positioned at the bottom of the list for infrastructure, cost of living and cost of doing business (Nos. 49, 48 and 43, respectively).

By comparison, Connecticut’s neighbors, Massachusetts and New York, fared better even with comparable metrics in some categories. For example, both border states ranked lower than Connecticut for cost of doing business. The Bay State was listed as No. 47 and Empire State No. 49 in that category. Both also scored low for cost of living: Massachusetts at No. 43 and New York No. 47.

But those low scores were tempered for those states by high scores in areas such as technology and innovation (New York tops in the nation; Massachusetts No. 7) and economy (Massachusetts No. 3, New York No. 14). Overall, Massachusetts ranked 16th, while New York ranked 35th among top states in the country for business, according to the CNBC survey.

The way business is assessed for surrounding states is important to Connecticut because it can affect the economic climate and opportunities here, according to Frank J. Johnson, president/CEO of the Manufacturing Alliance of Connecticut (MAC).

“States that surround us are looking to take our businesses away,” he says. One way to do that is to offer a higher-quality workforce.

“There’s a growing skills gap in Connecticut,” says Johnson. “There’s a huge difference between the number of positions out there and the number of positions [being filled].” Technical jobs in areas such as quality control, computer numerical control (CNC) machine operators, and tool-and-die makers lack qualified people to fill them, he says. Many experienced workers in these areas are retiring, and jobs are becoming available much more rapidly than they can be filled.

State programs such as STEP UP — which provides incentives for businesses to train and hire low-income and/or unemployed workers — help. But they are far from a cure-all, Johnson says.

“STEP UP has eased [the situation] somewhat, but the number of people who can participate in a program like that, it still doesn’t fill the voids,” Brennan says.

However, while Forbes and other surveys report business-ranking findings for Connecticut are comparable to those of the CNBC survey, it must be remembered that many of the variables are not completely dispassionate, Brennan says.

“They’re based on data points that are researched. A lot of it is very subjective,” Brennan says, adding, “I don’t think we’re the 45th worst place to do business — I think we’re better than that.

“We have a great quality of life in Connecticut,” he adds. “There’s great potential in Connecticut. We have world-class businesses here, and an educated workforce. There are a lot of assets.

He acknowledges, however, that perception is key.

“Unless we can eliminate this perception that Connecticut is not a good place to do business,” companies will not take root and/or grow and expand in the state, Brennan says.

Perceptions, as well as “having practical solutions” about the state’s business climate, is where CT20x17 comes in, says Brennan. The organization’s steering committee will determine the direction of initiatives that range from business-friendly legislative support, to better job-targeted training, to educating citizens about the potential for greater middle-class mobility.

“We want to let the voting populace know to vote for candidates” who support CT20x17 goals, Brennan notes about the latter emphasis. “This is the initial stage, just to kind of get [individuals and organizations] buying into the overall concept,” he adds.

Getting the message out to elected officials — and the people who vote them into office –— is one part of the CT17x20 strategy. Media campaigns, community meetings and other directed efforts are all part of the plan to place Connecticut among the top 40 percent of business-friendly states in the country by the year 2017.

General areas of focus include improving the state’s fiscal policy (operating within a consistently balanced budget); reducing business costs and red tape; improving the mass transportation system, including roads, bridges and seaports; and enhancing the talent pool through better education and pipeline opportunities.

CBIA estimates that an initial, roll-out budget will be about $500,000.

“Since this is a multi-year plan, we have no way of knowing what the total spend will be over the next three years,” Brennan acknowledges. “For this calendar year, we will likely spend somewhere between $400,000 and $600,000 on advertising. We generally do all of our creative in-house, so we do not anticipate any spending there.”

In the two months since CT17x20 was announced, dozens of local, regional and statewide entities have signed on in support of it. They include MAC, Connecticut Retail Merchants Association, Connecticut Lodging Association, Bridgeport Regional Business Council, Mechanical Conductors Association of Connecticut, New Haven Manufacturers Association, Business Council of Fairfield County, Motor Transport Association of Connecticut, Home Builders and Remodelers Association of Connecticut, and a number of chambers of commerce, to name a few.

“We don’t have final solutions,” Brennan says. “It’s really a broad coalition.”

“Obviously, we’re supportive of the idea of making Connecticut more competitive for businesses,” says MAC’s Johnson. “We always have wanted businesses to start, grow, survives and of course stay here.”

Johnson says the similar goals of MAC and CBIA make for a natural coalition.

“There’s a lot of commonality in our desired ultimate goals,” Johnson says. “The last survey we did with our members, taxation and the regulatory burden” were among top-priority concerns.

CT17x20 is “timely,” Johnson believes.

“On the one hand, with Connecticut’s budget challenges it’s probably difficult to take on an initiative like this,” he says. But on the other hand, Connecticut must become more competitive with other states, he adds.

Paul S. Timpanelli, president and CEO of the Bridgeport Regional Business Council (BRBC), agrees with Johnson that this is an opportune time the CT17x20 initiative.

“I think we’ve made progress in the past few years. The trend is right,” Timpanelli says, noting that this is an election year. “So I think we can bring some attention to the matter.”

The issue of whether or not to support CT17x20 was brought before BRBC’s board in mid-April.

“The board voted to fully support it,” says Timpanelli.

“I think it’s critical for the future of Connecticut in terms of job growth. The state of our state in Connecticut is not good. We need a regulatory environment and a taxing environment that’s more friendly to businesses.”

Hopefully, the aspect of the  CT17x20 effort to focus on elected officials will be beneficial, says Timpanelli.

“That’s part of the strategy, and we have to place this question much more in the mind of the average voter,” he says, adding, “Hopefully, it’s much more than a business initiative.”

“There are a number of things,” explains CBIA’s Brennan, “that individuals can do to support the CT20x17 campaign. The first step is to become familiar with and spread the campaign’s goals and objectives. Next, engaging in public discourse would be helpful.

“Attend legislative events in your district to engage with legislators and hold them accountable on economic issues,” says Brennan, who offers several ways for the average citizen to become involved. “Write a letter to the editor supporting efforts to improve our economic standing.  Sign up for the CT20x17 campaign, subscribe to the campaign’s social media accounts and attend campaign events. Follow up with your legislators during legislative sessions to make sure they are supporting the goals of the campaign.”

Just talking with friends and family also will have an impact, he says.

“Share information about the campaign with family, friends, work colleagues, etc.,” says Brennan. He adds that one of the most crucial individual actions should not be overlooked.

“Register to vote, become knowledgeable about the candidates, and be sure to vote on Election Day,” he adds.

A website is currently being developed, and information about CT20x17 will be available on it soon, Brennan says.