By Marc Silvestrini, Republican American
John G. Rowland, who spent much of his time as governor extolling the virtues of his native city to any and all who would listen, now gets to do that very same thing for a living.
Rowland signed a one-year contract to become Waterbury’s economic development coordinator last Feb. 1.
“It’s like coming back to a first love,” he said at the time.
The position was formed as a partnership between the city and the Waterbury Regional Chamber. City leaders first approached him about taking over the Waterbury Development Corp., the city’s economic and community development arm, but Rowland said he declined that position because it was too administrative in nature.
Rowland, who served nearly three terms as governor, three terms as a U.S. Congressman and two terms as the state representative from the 73rd house district, has been working as a motivational speaker before agreeing to take the coordinator’s job.
Here are some of his thoughts on the city’s economic future as he completes his 10th month on the job.
Q: Where does Waterbury’s economic future lie?
A: Waterbury’s economic future is predicated on what I would call L.A.W.S. – Location, Affordability, Workforce, and Safety.
We are no longer the Brass Capitol of the world. Our economic future lies in our strategic location at the crossroads of Routes 8 and 84; our affordability in terms of our relatively low real estate and leas space prices, and the city’s financial stability; in our skilled, ingenious and hard-working work force which compares favorably with any in the Northeast; and in the fact that we are the safest city in Connecticut thanks to a capable police force and our concerned citizens.
All of these attributes prepare is for the tough economic times ahead. Developers, businesses and investors look at all these factors, and we fare well. Our region is poised for growth in the areas of alternative energy, education, health care, manufacturing, assembly work, distribution centers, and backroom operations for financial institutions.
Q: Is there any non-niche manufacturing in Greater Waterbury’s future, or is it time for the area to find another economic engine?
A: Our economic engine will always be our small niche manufacturing plants that specialize in plating, eyelets, screw machines, etc. – and no one does it better. New innovation and technologies make these companies more productive and competitive.
We are, however, competing now in a global economy. The resources at Kaynor Technical High School, Naugatuck Valley Community College, The Manufacturing Alliance Service Corp. and others are essential to maintaining and growing this economic engine.
For the downtown area, the Palace Theater and the University of Connecticut at Waterbury campus are more than just nice buildings. They attract thousands of visitors and students to downtown, many for the first time.
UConn has the capability of bringing hundreds of young people downtown to live, and an expansion of classes in the future could bring even more students to the city. The prospects of a UConn nursing school would have a tremendous impact in a vocation that is sorely in need of new practitioners.
We offer a convenient, safe, affordable urban experience for students in a growing “hip” environment. Think of Providence or Burlington Vt., or even New Haven.
Q: Are you concerned about the future of General Growth Properties, the Chicago-based real estate investment trust that owns the Brass Mill Center and Commons, and by extension, the future of the mall itself?
A: The economic recession we are presently experiencing will unfortunately impact the entire retail sector. GGP has its own corporate problems, which I hope will be resolved.
Q: What has been the most difficult part of your job as the point man for the city’s economic development efforts?
A: Changing perceptions. For some reason, there is a misperception that Waterbury is not safe, especially at night. The reality is quite the opposite. People in doubt should go downtown for dinner. They’ll find ample parking, good lighting and fine dining at any of the downtown area’s excellent restaurants.
The recent economic downturn has business development on hold, but Waterbury has survived depressions, wars, floods, and worse – we will continue to survive and prosper.
Q: What has been the most significant accomplishment of your first 10 months in office?
A: This is a team effort. The mayor, elected officials, the Waterbury Development Corp. and the Waterbury Regional Chamber are all working together.
During the past year, we have had some successes, including Portmeirion, the gift and housewares distributorship that moved to a facility on Progress Lane; the CoCo Key Water Resort at the Holiday Inn; the new Kohl's Department Store outlet; new restaurants, and some small startup companies.
But the future is even brighter thanks to Rep. Christopher Murphy's help in securing $15 million in federal funding to clean upt he Chase Industrial Commons, $650,000 from the state for brownfield remediation, and the only "expanded enterprise zone" in the entire state, which will offer expanded tax abatements to attract new investment.
But my greatest hope and dream is to see young couples, students, young professionals, artists, business owners and workers livign in an exciting downtown enviroment. There are new rehabilitation apartments on Bank Street and more to come with renovated offices at Broadcast Center. Imagine more restaurants, pubs, shops and offices in a vibrant down town.
We have beautiful, historic architechture in a conveniently located, business-friendly city with unlimited potential, but only if we believe.
Q: The Board of Aldermen said last June it would review your progress in December and might cut the funds that help pay your contract if it wasn't happy. Are you confident the aldermen wil be satisfied with your progress?
A: Absolutely. We've accomplished a number of good things - the expansion of the enterprise zone, the $15 million federal grant to clean up Chase Industrial Commons, the money from the state for brownfield remediation - and we've got a lot of other good things in the works. Also, despite these rather grim economic times, we've managed to attract some new companies and a few new restaurants to the city, and we've also got several new developers engaged in our downtown. We've also got an effective marketing plan in place and a new brochure to help us spread the word about our city.
I think most people understand you can't turn around the fortunes of this or any city overnight. I don't think anyone thought we were going to get this turned around in six months. But I also think we've made some very solid progress. We've made inroads.
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