OP-ED | Can Connecticut Reinvent Itself?
Poor Connecticut. Because of our modest size and our quirky geography, we’ve long had an inferiority complex. Sandwiched in between two of the most vibrant metropolitan areas in the world, we’ve never really been able to figure out what we are.
We market ourselves as a state with easy access to both New York and Boston. Once upon a time, that was an asset. Now it seems more like a liability. While we have some decent cities, they tend to be poor places whose limited glory has ebbed along with New England’s manufacturing era.
Whereas once it was an attractive quality to be close to the two big cities, that proximity is also an easy lure for young people who grew up in Connecticut and are seeking greener pastures but want to stay relatively close to home in order to visit with family and the like.
A UConn graduate faced with the choice of an offer here or one in Boston will be tempted by the hi-tech and higher-education vibe of The Hub of the Universe, as the largest city in New England is sometimes known. Or for obvious reasons, a recent graduate of Southern Connecticut State might look to Big Apple for excitement and opportunity.
But there are some bright spots here. Sometimes at great expense, the state has made a real push to attract bio-tech firms such as Jackson Laboratories, for example. And as my colleague Barth Keck pointed out in a terrific op-ed on these pages last week, manufacturing has declined in Connecticut as it has in the rest of the country, but as of last year there were still 160,000 manufacturing jobs in the state. Amazingly, that’s more than the insurance and financial sectors combined. That either speaks to the decline of those two sectors or to the relative strength of manufacturing, or perhaps both.
And Connecticut jumped 10 spots in CNBC’s survey of “Top States for Business in 2017” — though we’re still at 33rd and it seems the improvement had more to do with the quality of our schools than the general business climate.
On the other hand, there have been some disturbing commentaries written recently by business people in the state, essentially shouting at the tops of their lungs about how difficult it is to do business here.
Our capital city, once derided by Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy as “America’s File Cabinet,” will not only see some of the those cabinets leave with the departure of Aetna’s top brass, but the city itself is on the verge of bankruptcy — an option that seems even more likely after Hartford’s bond rating was downgraded this week to junk status.
Speaking of incompetence in Hartford, the General Assembly has yet to pass a budget. At the end of June, lawmakers had a chance to stay at the Capitol and work things out, but as my colleague Susan Bigelow observed, “astonishingly, they decided instead to dither, golf, and go on vacation.”
Now that we are into July with no approved budget, Gov. Dannel Malloy is essentially running the state by executive order. And the state recently attracted yet more negative national attention when last week The Atlantic magazine published an essay ominously entitled “What on earth is wrong with Connecticut?”
So what IS wrong with Connecticut? I might not be the best person to answer that question since I live in a part of the state (the far northwest corner) that’s 75 minutes from Hartford and more resembles Vermont than Connecticut. But I’ll take a crack at it. And I don’t think it has a whole lot to do with state government. After all, when was the last time you heard someone say: “I want to move to North Dakota. They have balanced budget there.”
Connecticut is expensive — both in terms of the cost of living and in terms of the tax burden its residents and businesses face. But the two states benefiting most from our outmigration — Massachusetts and New York — are hardly cheap, low-tax states. But they have large metropolitan areas that attract millennials and others looking for excitement.
In announcing Aetna’s decision to move its executives to Manhattan, Mark T. Bertolini, Aetna’s chairman and chief executive, told the New York Times: New York provides “the ecosystem of having people in the knowledge economy, working in a town they want to be living in, and we want to attract those folks, and we want to have them on our team. It’s very hard to recruit people like that to Hartford.”
Ouch. I think, more than anything, we have a city problem. It might not be fair but we’re seen as boring — a land of suburban office parks, rotting cities, and faded mill towns. And we’re not even low-tax anymore. That was what attracted the relocation of corporate headquarters and branch offices from New York in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Now we’re just another expensive place to live and do business in, but without the allure of bustling urban centers. Either we have to reinvent ourselves or grimace and bear it.
Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at ctdevilsadvocate.com and is managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill.
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