From the Chamber / Economic success lies in regional collaboration

I recently returned from a trip to San Diego.

Entering the city by car, I caught a glimpse of the sign demarcating the official city limits which noted, among other things, that the city of San Diego was 372 square miles in size. For some context, that’s roughly half the size of all of Fairfield County.

Of course, Fairfield County is comprised of two dozen individual municipalities, the largest of which — Bridgeport — is roughly one-tenth the population of San Diego and situated on less than 20 acres. Clearly, there is a difference in scale, and in the realm of economic development, size matters. To compete effectively in an increasingly global economy, you need scale.

Businesses making investment or relocation decisions do not look so much to individual communities — at least in the initial stages of their search — as they do larger metropolitan areas or regions. And, with Connecticut fragmented into 169 municipal jurisdictions, it’s hard for any one community to marshal the necessary resources to compete effectively on this stage. If we are to be successful and to achieve our broader economic development goals, communities increasingly will need to work together across traditional geographical boundaries to present a coordinated strategy and operate more as a cohesive region.

Over the years, there have been efforts to do so, and some parts of the state have been more successful in pursuing regional economic collaboration than others. To be sure, there are some regional chambers of commerce and councils of government attempting to fill this void. New Haven’s Regional Economic Xcelleration also springs to mind, but Fairfield County hasn’t had anything really comparable at the municipal level.

This reality, and the acknowledgement of the risks associated in relying too heavily on the state, helped establish combined efforts to create the Fairfield County Five, a regional partnership comprised of Greenwich, Norwalk, Stamford, Westport and Fairfield. This collaboration is focused on touting Fairfield County as a great place to live, work and grow a business, and is aimed ultimately at attracting new business investment to the state, and particularly to Fairfield County.

The group held its first business outreach event in New York City this past fall, attracting roughly 50 attendees to a luncheon at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square. Our next event will take place in less than two weeks at the offices of Indeed, which is co-headquartered in Stamford, but which has offices in Manhattan. This event will be focused on emerging businesses within the tech sector, and give participating businesses an opportunity to meet with state and local leaders, in addition to Connecticut-based venture capital firms.

This latest recruitment visit was a result of a strategic planning retreat last month, attended by the chief elected officials and economic development leads of the five participating towns, hosted and facilitated by Deloitte at its Greenhouse Lab space in the city. While focused on strengthening the group’s working relationships and fostering economic development, the full-day workshop delved into other areas of potential collaboration.

Time will tell whether this latest regional initiative will be successful or can be sustained. But, with the state’s ongoing fiscal challenges, and continued constraints on resources at the local level, can we really afford not to try?

Mark Barnhart is the director of community and economic development for the town of Fairfield, and is the treasurer of the Connecticut Economic Development Association.