Blueprint drawn for area's economic growth

The draft of a new regional economic plan calls for a better transportation system in southeastern Connecticut and new incubator space to encourage possible spinoff companies resulting from layoffs at Pfizer Inc.

The 2011 Comprehensive Development Strategy, developed by the New London-based economic booster organization Southeastern Connecticut Enterprise Region, also supports the idea for a kitchen incubator in Ledyard. The incubator would lease out space to entrepreneurs who want to jump-start new businesses but can't afford the expensive equipment needed initially to create their products.

The latest economic plan, a 99-page document available for public comment in draft form at www.secter.org, is the first for southeastern Connecticut since 2004, when the possible closure of the U.S. Naval Submarine Base weighed most heavily on the region but both pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and the area's two Indian-run casinos were in a hiring mode.

"A lot of the projects haven't changed," Deborah Donovan, director of marketing for seCTer, said in a phone interview.

Donovan said the state's intention to turn New London into a container port combined with rail improvements and the possibility of developing a cruise-ship terminal in the city could be a big boost for the region.

"It could really beef up what comes in and out of State Pier," she said.

Donovan pointed out that some projects listed in the previous economic plan have been completed or made progress over the past seven years, including regional water agreements, improvements to the Parade area of New London, increased housing opportunities in downtown and the restoration of Fort Trumbull as a tourist destination.

But other ideas, such as a tourist bus loop in the area, have not yet come to fruition because of funding problems.

The idea for an incubator space to help launch biotech companies has been kicking around for a year or two, pushed by scientists such as Jim O'Malley, chief executive of New London-based Myometrics. It gets a formal airing in the latest report, which notes that the region's "innovation index" - related to patents and venture capital - is much lower than in the rest of the state and in the United States as a whole.

"The regional challenge is to create a coherent plan to assist both former Pfizer scientists and others, including graduates in the sciences from Connecticut College and UConn in particular, in setting up laboratories and finding investors or other funding sources to develop their ideas," according to the report. "The dearth of venture capital investment ... is not a positive omen for entrepreneurial development in the region."

Adding to the region's challenges, according to the economic plan, is Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's proposed deal with Jackson Laboratory to build a research facility at the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington. Donovan said scientific talent from Pfizer might well be lured out of the region if the deal goes through and no local alternative for employment exists.

"Previous restructurings at Pfizer have resulted in some local bursts of entrepreneurial activity," according to the plan. "The region's economic development strategy must include planning both for keeping existing bioscience businesses, small and large, in the region, and for growing new bioscience businesses from the foundation laid by Pfizer's presence."

The region also must deal with serious transportation problems and the need for better tourism services, according to the economic plan.

"Lack of an extensive and easy to use transportation system ... does create a potential obstacle to growth," according to the plan.

Another obstacle, according to the plan, is difficulties local industries find in hiring talent out of high school. More than 80 percent of incoming students at Three Rivers Community College in Norwich require remedial work in math and reading, the plan said, and Donovan added that schools also are not preparing graduates with such office skill sets as working with spreadsheets.

"Jobs are going begging," she said. "They're not learning the business part of skill sets they need to do simple office functions."

l.howard@theday.com

The region's transportation needs

• Roads around the casinos are stressed and need improvement.

• Weekend and summer bottlenecks along I-95 make the region difficult to navigate.

• Commuter rail service is inconsistent and inconvenient.

• Groton-New London Airport lacks commercial passenger service.

• Public bus service doesn't cover the entire region, is difficult to use and doesn't run late enough to accommodate tourists or workers on late shifts.

• Downtowns in New London and Norwich have confusing road systems.

• Signage for tourists and others is inadequate.

• Bicycle trails and other alternative forms of transportation are inadequate or difficult to find.

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