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Groton - Barbara Strother has been the face of economic development in town for two decades, and her upcoming retirement, town officials say, creates a vacancy in an important position during a crucial time for the local economy.
"It's absolutely a critical position," Town Manager Mark Oefinger said.
Pfizer is marketing its nearly vacant former research headquarters on Eastern Point Road and has said it may tear it down if a buyer is not found. It could cost the town $2.4 million in yearly tax revenue if that happens.
Earlier this year the town was labeled a distressed municipality, a not-so-flattering designation that resulted from a flat population growth and a 0.9 percent net loss in jobs between 2000 and 2010.
Strother, the town's economic development specialist, said she has watched the ebb and flow of the economy and remains optimistic - a necessity in her position.
"I think in many respects we've been lucky," Strother said. "The town has invested in infrastructure and their schools … something that's helped to spur growth."
In a region that has depended on jobs from the defense and pharmaceutical industries, Strother said she continues to preach diversity as the key to stability.
Oefinger, who has worked elbow-to-elbow with Strother in the planning department, said she will be hard to replace.
"Barbara has done a great job for the town over the years. She's resourceful, well-connected and knows the community so well," Oefinger said. "We'll be looking for a top-notch, first-rate (replacement) who can hit the ground running."
Town staff is working to tweak the job description before posting the opening, which falls under the planning and development department. Strother's annual salary was $72,356.
Planning and Development Director Michael Murphy said he has recommended some changes to the job description that include an emphasis on identifying business and economic sustainability opportunities and promoting profitability and competitiveness.
A panel will screen applicants before Murphy chooses Strother's successor from a list of the top candidates. He said he expects the position to be filled by February.
The position focuses on attracting and maintaining business by researching and evaluating the town's economic base, coordinating marketing efforts, finding available sites and incentives and fielding an array of questions from would-be or existing businesses.
Murphy said his staff will be picking up the day-to-day activities but does not want the position to stay open for long.
Strother, 63, plans to take a break before deciding what to do next after nearly 34 years of work in different positions with the town.
The longtime Mystic resident is the daughter of a World War II submariner who said she fell in love with the area at an early age. Her family moved from Groton to Florida while she was still in high school, but she found her way back in 1971.
"This is just where my heart was," she said.
She landed her first job with the town of Groton in the 1970s, as a secretary in the planning department. After stints at Pfizer, as a paralegal and running her own consulting business, Strother saved enough to attend Connecticut College and earned a degree in government, graduating Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude. She was hired as an assistant planner with the town in 1987.
Strother said her favorite part of the job has been simply "helping people," individuals and businesses alike.
"It's just time," Strother said of her retirement. "It's been a wonderful journey in a town I love so much."
She is a longtime board member of the Greater Mystic Chamber of Commerce, Economic Development Association Board, and Northeastern Economic Development Association.