Local leaders hopeful laid-off Pfizer employees will stay in area

Groton — A week after Pfizer announced it would be cutting about 100 jobs from its Groton site, questions remain about the impact. What is the timeline? What positions are being cut? How many affected employees will remain in southeastern Connecticut?

"News like that is disappointing for the region," said Mark Hill, chief operating officer of the Eastern Connecticut Workforce Investment Board. "There's a multiplier effect when we lose jobs like that. ... You just hope for the best."

He noted that depending on the nature of the positions, EWIB offers job training programs.

Nancy Cowser, executive director of the Southeastern Connecticut Enterprise Region (seCTer), said there will be a regional, collective effort to help folks stay here.

"Yes, it's disappointing," she said, "but I don't want it to kind of propagate the persistent message that seems to come out of the state that everything's so awful, because there are so many great things happening in our area."

According to a statement from Pfizer last Saturday, the staff reductions come as part of the pharmaceutical giant's "decision to end our neuroscience discovery and early development efforts" mainly focused on Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease.

Pfizer anticipates a loss of 300 positions spread evenly across its Groton and Cambridge and Andover, Mass., sites. The statement indicated the decision "will bring the most value for shareholders and patients."

It said that more details on a forthcoming neuroscience venture fund will be released this year.

The goal of the venture fund, Pfizer Worldwide Research and Development President Mikael Dolsten wrote in a letter posted online Thursday, is to invest in biotech companies doing promising neuroscience research.

He also wrote of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's research, "After our internal programs faced continual setbacks, we had to come to terms with the fact that our research efforts were simply not making the progress necessary to translate into truly transformational therapies for patients."

Dolsten added, "Our reallocation of funding will allow us to place greater focus on areas where we believe we have the strongest possibility of bringing important therapies and vaccines to patients in the near term."

He cited treatments and approaches for cancer, chronic inflammatory diseases, Duchenne muscular dystrophy, fatty liver disease and Clostridium difficile.

What's next for laid-off employees?

Pfizer spokesperson Neha Wadhwa said the cut-back decision is independent of the new tax bill. She could not answer what the timeline is for layoffs or what positions will be cut.

Wadhwa said in an email that Pfizer is "committed to helping our colleagues during this transition period as much as possible," such as by offering severance, continuation of insurance coverage during the severance period, a retraining allowance and outplacement counseling services.

Dawn Hocevar, president and CEO of BioCT, until recently known as CURE, is feeling positive, noting that laid-off Pfizer employees could end up at companies like Arvinas or Achillion Pharmaceuticals, or biotech companies in the Branford area.

She found that most employees of Alexion Pharmaceuticals didn't want to leave the company when it announced its move from New Haven to Boston.

"There's a lot of momentum here," Hocevar said.

Dr. Robert Peitzsch, a former Pfizer scientist who went on to found DKP Genomics in East Lyme, also cited Branford as a place with a lot of startups and innovation.

He said whether people choose to stay in the region "has to do with how flexible you want to be. Are you really rigid about ... doing exactly what you did at Pfizer?"

Other former Pfizer employees, whether they were laid off or left voluntarily, have started companies in Connecticut.

Former Pfizer research fellow Mark Thiede opened Two Wrasslin' Cats Coffee House & Café in East Haddam after being laid off in early 2012. David Fryburg went on to found the nonprofit Envision Kindness in East Lyme with his son.

Tony Sheridan, president of the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut, hopes that laid-off employees can start new companies in the area and get help from the state.

While 100 is small compared to past Pfizer layoffs, he noted it still hurts, and that it is a lot for anyone among those affected.

But Sheridan feels the impact is "eased significantly" with the hiring spree at Electric Boat, and that in his 15 years as chamber president, "it's become easier for people to maintain their roots in the community, because of the internet."

Realtor Mary Poola, owner of Heritage Properties, said she might expect to see some commuting — or telecommuting — to Boston and New York, and she's "not completely convinced you'll see an onslaught of houses coming on" the market.

She described Pfizer employees as living mostly along the shoreline, "typically in suburban settings, and generally speaking, they're mid-to-upper-range housing, in terms of size and price."

If employees do leave the region, she said selling becomes difficult for houses over $500,000, when one enters an elite market with discriminating buyers.

e.moser@theday.com

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