Time to give up seat in front row

I've always considered my job as business editor as having a front row seat on eastern Connecticut's economy.

And what a show it's been.

Now, after a 20-year career with The Day Publishing Co., I'm moving to the financial-services industry this week, joining the Groton-based Charter Oak Federal Credit Union's marketing department.

While it's exciting, indeed, to begin a new career, I appreciate the opportunity I was given to serve as business editor during a time when this local economy saw the birth of its casino industry, the growth and contraction of its major pharmaceutical employer, the ups and downs of its leading defense manufacturer, and the can-do attitude of those who still believe in the American dream of taking a risk, starting a business, and crossing their fingers for growth and prosperity.

I've covered hundreds of small businesses and budding entrepreneurs over the years and learned to realize the importance of small business and entrepreneurism to this economy. The number of large employers, while vital to this economy, could be counted on both hands vs. the thousands of small mom-and-pops and startups that are the true backbone of this local economy. Of the nearly 11,000 business establishments in New London County, for instance, some 62 percent employ between one and four workers, according to Connecticut Economic Resource Center data.

Over the years, the local defense industry saw layoffs, declining work and shifting priorities at the Pentagon. But today, even as talk of yet more base-closing commissions swirls, two submarines a year is a reality for Electric Boat, employment has grown, and the Groton-based submarine manufacturer has filled Pfizer's former research and development headquarters in New London with valuable skilled engineers.

Despite the challenges, defense will remain important to this region - and to this state. The Naval Submarine Base in Groton is a major contributor to this economy, along with the many subcontractors and consultants. Electric Boat is one of the state's largest manufacturers. While manufacturing has declined over the decades in Connecticut, the shipyard still provides jobs with good pay, and good benefits. The naval base and Electric Boat are estimated to provide more than $3 billion annually in economic impact locally.

When I arrived here in the late '80s, Pfizer Inc. was growing as a research-and-development hub as well as a leading manufacturer for the New York-based pharmaceutical giant. Now, as I leave, manufacturing is gone, New London is no longer home to its research and development headquarters and there's even some talk among Wall Street analysts of the company selling off non-core divisions. Pfizer's role as a leading employer in southeastern Connecticut is smaller today, yet it's still a key component in the region's biosciences and healthcare industries, which include the region's two hospitals - Lawrence & Memorial in New London and William W. Backus in Norwich - which together employ thousands.

The region's two casinos - Foxwoods Resort Casino and Mohegan Sun - are facing new challenges as competition grows in surrounding states. For years, this region could boast of strong, casino-driven employment gains. But that's changed as the casinos shed employment, changed their marketing focus and evolved into casino-and-entertainment destinations, with a growing emphasis on entertainment.

Tourism, at times buffeted by Hartford's legislative whims, is now buoyed by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's multimillion-dollar commitment to promote Connecticut's attractions - the majority of which are here - and to finally develop a serious branding campaign for this state.

I'm not sure where all this will lead, and I certainly can't forecast the future fortunes for the defense industry or Big Pharma or tourism, for that matter, but it's time to move on - with well wishes to all of you - and give up that front-row seat on eastern Connecticut's economy.

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