Lamont may add commerce post
The state should add a cabinet-level “secretary of commerce” to attract companies, coordinate agencies around growing the Connecticut economy and cheer-lead for the state, a transition group for Gov.-elect Ned Lamont recommended Wednesday.
Lamont, attending the event at a New Haven co-working space, embraced the idea, along with his push toward creating an upbeat attutude about Connecticut.
On one level, the job would advance the goal that just about every government in history has proffered, to make the place more friendly to business. That, of course, is constantly said and rarely achieved.
Doing it takes a high level of smart coordination between agencies, which the transition’s working group on the economy addressed at length, along with controlled costs and more value for the tax dollar, which remain elusive so far.
The commerce secretary job would be separate from the commissioner of the state Department of Economic and Community Development in the vision of the group that presented its report to Lamont. It’s unclear how exactly the two jobs would function in the same administration as the DECD commissioner does much of that already.
“You need to have a high level person looking at that overarching strategy,” said Gwendowlyn Thames, executive director of CTNext, the state’s initiative to boost entrepreneurship.
“In addition we need a brand ambassador,” said Thames, who’s also chair of the city council in Hartford. “We need a champion that is dedicated to growing our economy. They are opening doors…and the governor comes in and closes the deal.”
Critics will say it’s another office, perhaps another layer of government, that Connecticut doesn’t need.
“I do think we need an overarching group that takes the lead in workforce development, business recruitment, business retention and works across all our different agencies,” Lamont said after the presentation.
I asked whether that would be needed in addition to the DECD commisioner and he responded, “I think so.”
That position was part of a set of economic development recommendations built around three areas: accountability, workforce support and urban development. Much of it revolves around coordination and replicating ideas that work well, such as a manufacturing training program in eastern Connecticut.
“We’ve got too many silos,” said Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, co-chair of the legislature’s powerful appropriations committee and co-chair of Lamont’s transition committee.
The economic working group was one of 15 that presented ideas to Lamont and leaders of his transition this week, and that idea of cutting across silos resonated at many of them
Another repeating idea: Connecticut needs to stop being so down on itself. It’s coming clearer that the generally glum outlook here is feeding on itself, and the ever-optimistic Lamont, bolstered by the economic advisers on the panel, seems eager to end that cycle of psycho-economic poverty.
“Come on, let’s at least smile a little bit,” Matthew Nemerson said as he surveyed an audience of 75 dead-serious faces. He just left as the chief of economic development in the city of New Haven for a private sector job.
Nemerson pointed to triumphs such as the place where the meeting was held, called the District, or just District. It’s a co-working space for startup companies along with other offices, including the law firm Murtha Cullina, set in a campus that includes a beer garden, a Bear’s smokehouse location and other amenities — at the site of a formerly polluted, barbed-wire encircled bus depot.
Certainly we’ve seen triumphs like that, and we’ve also seen a state economy that until this year has shrunk by about 9 percent since the recession, at a time when Massachusetts and other states are far larger economically than they were before the recovery started.
The good news is 2018 appears on its way to be one of the state’s best, if not the absolute best, since 2007. And the bad news is the nation may be heading into a slowdown with many economists predicting a recession within two years.
So, smiling is a relative activity depending on a lot of factors.
Other ideas from the group included bringing surrounding states to a regional economic summit, and dramatically increasing the number of graduates in computer science. That raises another sticky issue, that government actions to direct training for companies’ needs is at best a shotgun effort, often rife with bad guesses.
In the case of computer science, especially digital trades that don’t require a college degree, as the committee recommended, it seems a good bet.
Lamont was asked afterward about the state’s risk in boosting training programs sharply in the face of a possible recession.
“I turn that around. We have big opportunities right now and we now they don’t go forever,” he said, repeating the optimistic theme of the transition, “so let’s take advantage of the fact that we have tens of thousands of jobs that we’re having trouble filling and fill them with Connecticut people.”