Community conversation focuses on bringing business to Connecticut
GREENWICH — Improving transportation infrastructure, developing targeted career education initiatives and bettering conditions for existing businesses are the keys to growing Connecticut’s economy, according to Greenwich resident and PepsiCo Chair Indra Nooyi.
A packed crowd gathered for a community conversation focused on the state’s economic growth with Nooyi and state Sen. Alexandra Bergstein (D-36) at the Greenwich Library Cole Auditorium on Thursday night.
A freshman senator, Bergstein started the discussion by asking Nooyi what businesses look for when considering a move to a new state.
“The first thing we look for are whether the policies of the state government are business-friendly,” Nooyi said. “Also, is there a talented workforce? Is there a specialized workforce? Can I get my products out of the state easily? Is there airport access? Is the (transportation) infrastructure going to hold up?”
New, improved transportation options
Using harbors and waterways for more commercial transportation and adding commuter ferries to New York City could transform many communities in Connecticut, said Nooyi, who stepped down as CEO last fall. She is continuing as chairwoman of the board of directors for now.
Updating and improving deteriorating infrastructure to better serve commercial vehicles would also be a plus for prospective companies, she added.
But the most critical of the state’s transportation needs is finding a way to fix the traffic jams on Interstate 95, Nooyi said.
Bergstein, who has already introduced a bill to bring tolls back to Connecticut in her first weeks in the state Senate, said installing electronic tolls on I-95 would achieve that goal.
Though a small group of protestors gathered outside the auditorium before the event to display their opposition to tolls, the audience inside cheered Bergstein’s proposal.
“Congestion on I-95 is an enormous problem. And there’s a cost to that. The cost per resident is about $2,300 a year in excess fuel and lost time,” said Bergstein, who is the first Democrat in decades to represent the 36th District, which encompasses all of Greenwich and part of Stamford and New Canaan.
According to Bergstein, a driver who commutes about 50 miles a day would spend an average of $600 a year on tolls under her legislation.
“That may sound like a lot of money, but you would save $2,300 a year,” she said. “And you would get home to spend more time with your family.”
Implementing congestion toll prices — which would be higher at busier times — would reduce traffic, Bergstein said, because truck drivers would likely adjust their routes to avoid higher prices. And adding an HOV lane would encourage drivers to commute to work together, taking more cars off the road, she said.
With about 30 percent to 40 percent of the state’s highway traffic made up of trucks and tractor-trailers, Bergstein said tolls would take the burden off taxpayers to pay for damage caused by large commercial vehicles from out of state.
The senator also suggested credits or exemptions for low-income families to create “true fair market pricing so we don’t disproportionately impact vulnerable people.”
Learn in Connecticut, stay in Connecticut
“We want young people to not just get their education in Connecticut, but to make a life in Connecticut,” said Nooyi.
Bergstein asked the business leader how public and private partnerships can be applied to education and job training to create a pipeline of skilled workers for businesses.
“Workforce development is required for business development,” said Nooyi. “We need to map out what kind training we need to provide to our future workforce.”
Companies that have left the state could return once they see Connecticut has the workforce the need, she said.
Bergstein floated the idea of offering student loan forgiveness to graduates of Connecticut universities who stay and work in the state for several years as an incentive to keep young people from leaving.
By adding a pool of healthy young people to the state’s health insurance plan, the overall cost of insurance would go down, said Bergstein. A good insurance plan would be an additional incentive for young people to take jobs in Connecticut, she said.
Building better business relationships
The most effective way to bring companies into the state is by bettering relationships with the ones that are already here, Nooyi said, because business leaders will strive to bring more companies in their industries where they work.
Pointing to the insurance industry in Hartford, Nooyi said companies there have been on the front lines of recruiting more firms in their field to work in Connecticut.
Because the state was once a hub for high-end manufacturing, the buildings and structures previously used could be fired up again by the same companies if the state can persuade them to return, Nooyi said.
That infrastructure can also be revitalized and find new life, Bergstein added, citing media companies Blue Sky Studios, which has an office in the backcountry, and NBC Sports, which took over a former manufacturing plant in Stamford, as examples.
“Why we became a hub for media is because of the financial service companies that used to housed here,” she said. “Those buildings have the infrastructure and capacity to create the product that the media is putting out.”
To achieve the bipartisan goal of renewing the state’s economic growth, Nooyi said a clear plan needs to be forged.
“We have to outline the vision we want for Connecticut,” she said.