Groton development agency proposed

Groton - It's one thing to hear about one of the world's largest drug companies tearing down a former research headquarters. It's another thing to see it.

John Scott has driven past Pfizer Inc.'s demolition site several times, and it breaks his heart each time.

"They're basically taking demolition equipment and ripping it to shreds," said Scott, referring to the leveling of the 750,000-square-foot Building 118, which began in July.

The demolition of the building, formerly the work hub of hundreds of scientists and other well-paid pharmaceutical industry workers, has become one of the most visible symbols of the decline in the number of jobs at the five largest employers in Groton. The number is down 4,000 in the past decade, according to a report issued last month by the consultant Milone & MacBroom.

Now plans are being developed to try to reverse the trend by creating an independent economic development corporation similar to ones in New London and Norwich. And Scott, a Mystic resident, member of Representative Town Meeting and president of Bailey Agencies Insurance, is one of the major movers behind the idea.

"We should have had something in our pocket. It was the worst-kept secret in town that Pfizer wanted to demolish those buildings," Scott said. "Why didn't we have an expert looking for a tenant that Pfizer would work with?"

Scott proposed the agency. A task force of 12 people, including him, was scheduled to meet for the second time last Thursday to come up with a specific plan for how the agency would work, who it would report to and how much money and staff it would have. The task force did not have a quorum but discussed ideas anyway for the yet-to-be-named agency. The Representative Town Meeting would have to approve the proposal for it to go forward; it would then proceed to the Town Council or directly to the voters.

One of the ideas being considered is hiring an executive director who would meet with current and prospective business owners at any and all hours. The salary of the director has yet to be determined.

"If you want to focus on economic development and revenue growth and be successful with it, you need someone specifically assigned to do that," said Bob Frink, a town councilor and retired project manager for Northeast Utilities. "In Groton, this has been, and is, the town staff." But their plates are full, he said.

The agency could also serve to unite portions of Groton, which some say are fractured by governmental boundaries that include separate city and town governments.

'Politics need to be out of this'

Joyce Resnikoff, who owns Groton Shopping Plaza and Olde Mistick Village, said she supports the idea of an agency in Groton but wishes the towns had worked together to have enough population to draw retailers. She would have preferred regional cooperation.

"In my mind it's Norwich against New London, and you have the Thames River and it's a barrier and it's stupid," she said.

Chris Regan, who manages the Groton Shopping Plaza and plans to renovate it, said he wants to get tax credits but has to figure out how. That's why Groton needs an agency to help business, he said.

"The politics need to be out of this," he said. "You have to have people who are focused on this as a positive for the business community. Because that's what makes a community, because it means jobs."

Economic development agencies in other towns are mostly independent of the government, have outgoing, well-connected leaders with contacts in the state Department of Economic and Community Development, and knowledge of how the grant system works, task force members said. Norwich's agency also employs a staff member to help businesses navigate local planning and zoning rules, said Scott.

The agencies are typically overseen by boards of directors with broad representation from businesses including large industry, banks and small downtown shops. Task force members met with representatives of agencies in Norwich, New London, Naugatuck and New Haven.

The corporations are defined and would be easy to clone, Frink said.

"It doesn't happen quickly, and there are risks. But doing nothing is risky," he said.

Mark Svencer, a Representative Town Meeting member, said Groton must find its niche and define itself among the towns. Waterford has staked out retail and East Lyme is following. Meanwhile, he said, restaurants are vacating Long Hill Road and downtown Mystic is struggling.

"There's a lot of people walking, but not a lot of people with shopping bags. We have to decide what we're going to be," he said. The town should be thinking five moves ahead, he added.

Town government must also recognize the need and get behind it, Scott said.

"Economic development needs a buy-in from the community at large, whether it be your neighbors up and down the street, or the town manager's office, the planning office, everybody has to be working together and excited about it," he said. "And we don't really have that in town right now."

d.straszheim@theday.com

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