DECD Chief: Next Mission is Lifting CT’s Urban Jobs
By Gregory Seay | January 26, 2015
DECD Commissioner Catherine H. Smith
Now, says Catherine H. Smith, commissioner of the state Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD), her agency is collaborating with other state departments and businesses to leverage Connecticut’s job and gross domestic production gains into long-term job-growth and funding for transportation and other infrastructure improvements.
“We’ve gotten a lot done,” Smith said, referring to the “First Five” and Small Business Express (EXP) loan programs and other job-creation tools enacted during the first term of her boss, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.
“We’ve got great tools in the tool chest, but there’s even more we can do to further the successes of this state.”
In an early January interview in her third-floor office overlooking downtown and midtown Hartford, Smith said programs like EXP will continue, but with a more targeted emphasis on aiding employers to lift hiring in Connecticut’s most economically hard-pressed urban centers, like Hartford, Bridgeport, Waterbury and New London.
The DECD chief also sees no change in the use of state-funded tax credits as incentives for employers to expand in or relocate to Connecticut. So far, the state has committed $95 million in Urban and Industrial Sites Reinvestment Tax Credits to certain “First Five” aid recipients (Bristol’s ESPN and Stamford’s Pitney Bowes each got $10 million; Cheshire’s Alexion Pharmaceuticals, $25 million; and Bloomfield’s Cigna, $50 million.)
Also, the state last spring agreed to allow United Technologies Corp. to apply $400 million in unused tax credits over 10 years in exchange for keeping its Pratt & Whitney Co. jet-engine division and thousands of jobs in East Hartford.
Pushing through the next phase of Malloy’s economic agenda, which will heavily emphasize transportation improvements, is the reason Smith says she’s staying put at this early stage of the governor’s second four-year term.
“This job has been one of the most interesting of my career,” said Smith, an ex-banker and former CEO of ING U.S. Retirement Services, now Voya Financial in Windsor. “There’s still obviously more to be done. That’s why I’m back.”
Connecticut’s focus on bioscience will remain a top priority, Smith said. The Malloy administration has already invested upwards of $1 billion in upgrades to UConn’s Farmington teaching hospital complex and Jackson Laboratory’s new genomics research center next door. They’ve also created a $200 million Bioscience Innovation Fund aimed at commercializing research into business ventures.
And that’s only the beginning, Smith said.
“Because of those two things,” she said, “suddenly we’ve gained traction with a number of significant players in the (bioscience) industry.”
Smith pointed to the October opening of a genomics research center by Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in Branford, burnishing that community’s reputation as home to a number of bioscience firms and startups. Durata Therapeutics moved there from New Jersey in 2013.
Connecticut’s business community likes what it sees in Smith and what she has accomplished in four years.
Joe Brennan, chief executive of the Connecticut Business & Industry Association, an employer lobby, credits Smith with assembling a group whose aim is matching employers with specific skills needs to the people with those skills.
“She’s indefatigable,” Brennan said. “She has a lot of energy. She’s all over the state all of the time. She’s thoughtful on a wide variety of topics and she’s passionate about making Connecticut a good place to live and work.”
Brennan said CBIA wants Smith and DECD to continue forging partnerships with CT Inc. to promote business opportunities that spur job creation, particularly in the advanced manufacturing sector, where Connecticut aeroparts makers and other tech firms have a foothold.
CBIA particularly likes the Malloy administration’s stated effort to focus more of the state’s corporate and small-business assistance on employers based in Connecticut’s major cities.
CBIA has launched a campaign — “CT20 by 2017” — aimed at promoting economic-development and business-friendly policies that, in two years, vault Connecticut into the ranks of the top 20 states with sterling reputations for encouraging business.
Working together, CBIA and Smith must persuade state policymakers to “promote policies that will improve our business climate … and reject those that would hurt our rankings,” Brennan said. Improving the state’s fiscal policy, talent development and transportation infrastructure are starting points, he said.
Smith says she regularly monitors several key economic indices, including monthly job creation and unemployment, state GDP and new-business formations, for signs as to how the state and U.S. economies are faring.
“Some bigger-picture things I watch like a hawk,” said Smith, an avid runner who logs several miles daily. “If these numbers aren’t going in the right direction, then we’re not doing our jobs.”
“We’re off to a good start,” she said. “The momentum is in the right direction. But we aren’t done.”