Now it's our turn to lead

Drive around Hartford and its wealthy suburbs — a beautiful metropolis still — and in the traffic on almost any Main Street you will see lingering signs of the age of affluence and influence a century ago: three- and four-digit Connecticut license plates. 

For any combination of numbers up to 9999 there was a waiting list at the DMV. Get elected, or get a friend elected, and you could move to the top of the list. Those were the vanity plates before vanity plates, and to this day they signify the old guard.

Reporters sent to cover political fundraisers learned to scan the parking lot for low-number plates as a sign of whether the power-crowd was attending. Before I moved from there to here, a colleague at the Courant told me it was clear from the cars at a Niantic Democratic fundraiser that southeastern Connecticut lacked big shots.

Lack of big shots was a sure sign that our region might be a nice place to visit but it wasn't the place to make the big bucks or call in favors.

Now Hartford is on the edge of bankruptcy and the state cannot balance its budget. Yet Southeastern Connecticut, the laggard in economic recovery from the recession, is seeing greater employment, expansion of submarine building, housing development, business incubation, a new level of cooperation among towns, cities and tribal government, transportation alternatives, and the chance that a quirky "Innovation Place" plan may bridge the mouth of the Thames River as the Gold Star never could. People love to visit here more than ever. And last week we found out that the Federal Railroad Administration had dropped its plan to drive rail spikes through the heart of the place.

Maybe it's our turn to lead the way.

The Atlantic, in an article and graphics titled "What on Earth is Wrong with Connecticut?" nails the explanation of how the state and its capital came to their current fiscal shambles: "Connecticut was a manufacturing state, which became a finance hub, which is now bleeding both manufacturing and finance.... Connecticut is losing rich companies (and their tax revenues) while it's adding low-wage workers, like personal-care aides and retail salespeople. Yet it remains a high-tax state. That's a recipe for a budget crisis."

The state needs new revenue sources and new people and entities paying in. The region is poised for that growth:

  • New London County, in the eyes of the U.S. Census, is a "micropolitan area," meaning its population doesn't center on one city. About 275,000 people live here. Many of those who work here — EB, casinos, hospitals — commute in, some from out of state. Housing and amenities in the towns where they work will make it appealing to live here.
  • The region is by far the state's biggest tourism draw; that includes one-of-a-kind attractions like the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center and Mystic Seaport. Adequately promoted, tourist attractions will bring in even more visitors. And with most of them coming from states where highway tolls are normal, they wouldn't balk at paying them in Connecticut.
  • Manufacturing, with its highly skilled, well-paying jobs, is on the rise at EB. The supplier chain of subcontractors is being made more reliable for the building of more subs.
  • New, 21st-century business models being explored at CURE in Groton make it possible for research and development to happen outside of major companies.
  • No place in the state rivals downtown New London as a transportation hub. The decision not to reroute Amtrak offers the chance to make Shore Line East a genuine commuter railway and take pressure off I-95. Adding stops in Mystic, Westerly and Niantic could be key. Commuting by ferry ought to be on the table.
  • Collaborations like the Thames River Innovation Place and the Mohegan Tribe's plans for the former state hospital property could show the rest of the state how regional-sized projects can diversify and create business.

We still won't have low-number license plates, but we'll know we deserve them.

Lisa McGinley is a member of The Day Editorial Board. 

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