Bulls outweigh bears in charting Elm City’s commercial prospects

 

 There is more than enough doomsday rabble-rousing going around the nation these days, so one can hardly be blamed for feeling less than confident about the future.

New Haven has reached its 375-year milestone, but looking ahead another quarter century might be a daunting task in this climate. Nevertheless, many in the business community are less than worried, and by all accounts find that the region has a good future ahead of it.

New Haven’s central business district is doing well when it comes to real estate development, especially if as illustrated by the relatively low vacancy rate of storefronts downtown.

Chris Ortwein is business-center manager for the Town Green Special Services District. She notes that, given the number of projects in the pipeline for the short term, some areas of the city center may look vastly different within a decade. She points specifically to the Route 34 project, the establishment of 100 College Street, and the planned eventual location of LiveWorkPlay on the former New Haven Coliseum site.

“New Haven is in a great position at this point,” asserts Ortwein. “We’re going to be reconnecting a city; there is a whole generation that probably doesn’t know what it was like to have one downtown before [the Route 34 connector] split that. To re-grow downtown will be wonderful.”

Ortwein acknowledges that it remains to be seen what impact the 100 College building will have on economic development, “but we hope it will be the first of several buildings on that site,” she says. “To be downtown and have that availability of acreage to build on is a wonderful asset. It will change the economy in a way that hasn’t happened for a while. When we come to our 400th anniversary, the town will look different.”

The 100 College Street project is an 11-story biomedical lab research and office building adjacent to the Route 34 connector. Cheshire-based Alexion Pharmaceuticals will be the building's first tenant, relocating its headquarters to the Elm City.

Lou Proto, principal of commercial real estate firm the Proto Group,may not have a crystal ball to look into the future, but similarly agrees the city and the region is well positioned.

“I think there will be a lot of changes in the city in the next couple years,” Proto says. “The commercial sector has been very stable, picking up and increasing all the time, and the city has been good to work with.”

Jeff Dow of Dow Realty also looks forward to the promise of the 100 College building, and sees a bright future ahead, particularly because of Yale University and the Yale-New Haven Hospital. He also says the city is “ahead of the curve” with its success in the apartment market and livability, but officials need to be mindful of taxes and fees that could make business owners look elsewhere.

“The city needs to make smart decisions to encourage development and really has to try to be business-friendly and lower the cost of doing business,” says Dow. “They have already done a lot that — the city had a big hand in getting 100 College Street — and they need to continue to do that in other areas. Then the city will thrive.”

Dow also says the city has done much to improve public safety, but it must do more since he regularly hears concerns — many based simply on perception — from potential businesses owners and residents who may be afraid to venture into the city or downtown.

 

The Elm City already has a vibrant arts scene, and if its cultural momentum can be maintained, the next quarter century could be just as exciting, if not more so.

Cindy Clair, executive director of the Arts Council of Greater New Haven, says the arts community is “remarkable” for a city this size.

“I believe the arts have the potential to grow, to evolve and engage new and wider audiences in ways we can’t even imagine,” she says. “For the arts to thrive, we’ll need strong and steady financial support to sustain the cultural anchors and provide the kind of risk capital that allows them to experiment. And we’ll need affordable spaces where emerging arts groups can perform and artists can create.”

The International Festival of Arts & Ideas has been a virtually quintessential part of early summer in the Elm City since its founding in 1996. Mary Lou Aleskie’s first festival as executive director took place in 2006. By her account, New Haven has had a strong and resilient arts scene — anchored by Tony Award-winning theaters (the Shubert’s historic role as "Birthplace of the Nation’s Greatest Hits”) and one of the oldest symphonies (the 119-year-old New Haven Symphony Orchestra) in the country — that has benefited from its modest size to the extent that it could be a model city for incubating new art forms as technology and media evolve.

“I think the scale of New Haven — in terms of population, scale of the buildings, the intimacy with which we live — is the cornerstone dynamic that makes it a great incubator for new ideas and new things,” Aleskie says. “As high-speed trains continue to advance and our own individual obsession with technology pulls us further from each other, places like New Haven that are built on its humanity, given its size and geography, will be a tremendous asset. Whatever’s in the DNA of New Haven will create the new models for the future.”

Aleskie adds that financial means are key as well, and based on experience with the festival, she knows that a little extra money can go a long way toward making cultural endeavors more successful.

The manufacturing industry also faces challenges but thee is optimism about its future here, according to Jack Crane, director of growth and innovation services for the Connecticut State Technology Extension Program (ConnSTEP).

“The New Haven manufacturing scene has a significant chemicals component, some metals, machining, forming and medical devices, so it’s a mixed bag,” Crane says. “It’s going to grow because people have recognized the fact that it’s an important ingredient in job creation and innovative thinking.”

Crane says most of Connecticut’s manufacturing lies in exacting, precision manufacturing, while high-volume output mostly has migrated overseas. The challenge he finds is in increasing technical demands and quality of labor while getting enough returns to reinvest with.

“If you can’t reinvest in people, equipment and new technology, you’ll be in a position that really hurts you. Hopefully the support at the state level will stay,” he says. “If we can get over that we’ll have a bright future because we are seeing production come back.”

He says the manufacturing of medical devices shows promise because he sees significant growth in the health-care industry.

Health care is one area the New Haven region has well covered already thanks in no small part to Yale-New Haven Hospital and the Yale School of Medicine. Bruce Koeppen, MD has been named founding dean of Quinnipiac University’s medical school, which will welcome its first class this August. He points out that with three medical schools in the state (including Yale’s and Quinnipiac’s locally) along with a solid record and infrastructure, the outlook for the region’s health-care industry is good.

The real challenge he finds is in establishing what he sees as a changing health-care model that will move toward “team medicine,” rather than a model that places the physician at the center of the universe.

“The old paradigm was that the physician was the captain of the ship, but the news is that the health-care team is analogous to a NASCAR pit crew, where you’ve got people with a broad range of expertise all coming together to take care of the patient,” Koeppen explains. “It’s a team effort.”

Koeppen says it’s important to start teaching the doctors of tomorrow today to work in the new paradigm.

“They need to learn who their colleagues are, so they can seamlessly become members of these teams. Change is always difficult — it’s a cultural change. Let’s start that during the medical education process,” he says.

 

Vin Petrini, senior vice president of public affairs for Yale-New Haven Hospital, says that team mentality is already a reality at his institution. With New Haven being “an epicenter for medical services” for the whole state, Petrini finds the biggest struggle for the future to be keeping up with a changing economic landscape and quality expectations.

“The hospital and the providers need to figure out a way to deliver high-quality care in a much more cost-effective manner,” he says. “We also need to start thinking more holistically — shifting from the sick-care system to a well-care system, where we treat the patient and family before, during and after hospitalization — to monitor and intervene at the right times to prevent illness. I think that’s where the hospital and health care is leaning.”

He adds that the hospital will see more consumer-driven care as well, especially as patients become better educated on their options.

As an extension of the health-care industry, the region’s bioscience sector is looking good with plenty of startups and major state initiatives such as the Innovation Ecosystem. Frank Marco is a partner at the New Haven law firm of Wiggin & Dana, who represents clients in the bioscience and technology sectors.

“Look at the investment China is making in bioscience,” he says. “It’s being viewed as an area of growth, the curing and investigation of diseases, and there is a groundswell of new technologies. In Connecticut, we have a critical mass of resources.

“New Haven is incredibly well positioned, given Yale and the intellectual property generated there, and a number of pharmaceutical companies, so there’s a large pool of talent,” Marco adds, noting that funding will be critical going forward.

“Venture capitalists have largely moved away from early-stage bioscience companies because it can take up to hundreds of millions of dollars to get a company along,” he explains.

Harry Penner, chairman of New Haven-based bioscience firm Affinimark Technologies, whose lead product detects cerebrospinal fluid leaks in patients, likewise says the consistency and availability of funding will play a large role, particularly for startups.

“There is recognition among startups that there needs to be a good amount of bootstrapping before getting series A financing,” he says. “There is a very important role for seed financing that the state can play, and then of course a lot of the science can be incubated within the university system, which can be helpful.”

Likewise Penner says its encouraging that the state has launched initiatives and invested in research institutions.

“When you’re looking over the hill you can only see so far,” he notes. “This is a sector that is going to become increasingly important as we look at the aging population and the myriad scientific discoveries coming out of our major institutions.

“We have a good base,” Penner says. “Are we ever going to be Cambridge? San Francisco? I doubt it — but there is a very good place for New Haven in that mix.”