New development commissioner visits Norwich, New London, Groton
In a two-day tour of southeastern Connecticut, the state's newest Department of Economic and Community Development commissioner focused on growing cities, capitalizing on the state's natural assets and leveraging Opportunity Zone status.
David Lehman, a former Goldman Sachs executive the state Senate confirmed as commissioner in March, visited New London and Norwich on Monday, and Norwich and Groton on Tuesday.
His second day included a meeting with the Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments at its Norwich office, meetings at Electric Boat and the University of Connecticut's Avery Point campus, and a tour of the Naval Submarine Base.
The base's new commanding officer, Capt. Todd Moore, walked Lehman out on pier 31, the water around the adjacent USS Colorado bubbling as the submarine prepares for deployment. Bob Ross, director of the Connecticut Office of Military Affairs, explained the work being done to replace pier 32 to accommodate the eventual Block V Virginia-class submarines.
"When I think about the state and the economy, I'm really focused on: What are our natural advantages?" Lehman told The Day, explaining his decision to visit maritime and military sites on Tuesday. It was his first time on the base.
He said he wants to make sure the base is positioned for continued prosperity. Earlier, he talked workforce issues with Electric Boat President Jeffrey Geiger.
Lehman cited a desire to make it easier for people in the supply chain to do business in Connecticut but said he hasn't dived deep into regulations yet, something he plans to do after this legislative session.
"If we have a unique law or we're one of two or three states that has a law that makes us stand out for a negative reason, we have to make sure it's really worth it," Lehman said earlier Tuesday, addressing SCCOG.
He also spoke of his focus on cities, saying that because the millennial preference has not been to live in suburbia and the "trend toward urbanization is going to continue," his goal is to double the size of Connecticut's cities in the next 25 years.
New London and Norwich each have three designated Opportunity Zones, low-income census tracts eligible for federal tax incentives for investors, while Groton has one. Lehman wants to see a "super concierge service" website, where investors could see all shovel-ready projects in the state.
Lehman said he thinks there could be new business creation in Opportunity Zones, but if new development is predominantly housing, "that's the right starting point."
Paige Bronk, economic and community development manager for the Town of Groton, noted that Connecticut doesn't have much of the amenity-rich housing stock offered elsewhere. Speaking at the SCCOG meeting, Bronk also said he was inspired by Lehman's reference to collaboration, especially considering "our corner of the state is forgotten a lot of times."
Lehman said the days of upfront grants to businesses are changing, and the state will start to instead offer earn-as-you-go job incentives as jobs are created.
He also visited UConn Avery Point on Tuesday, meeting with campus director Annemarie Seifert.
Seifert told The Day afterward she talked about work being done on the economic value of the shellfish sector and about the National Institute for Undersea Vehicle Technology, a collaboration between UConn, the University of Rhode Island and Electric Boat.
On Monday in New London, Lehman visited City Hall, State Pier, the Electric Boat engineering office and Fort Trumbull before meeting with the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut in Waterford.
"The impression I got was very encouraging, especially for the city of New London," said Felix Reyes, director of economic and community development. "His vision for growing cities, how to do it, aligned to some of the things that we're putting into practice now."
Reyes cited transportation and brownfields funding, saying the latter is important because "the adaptive reuse of our historical buildings is important for our cities."
Lehman told The Day he's "very positive in New London and Norwich, in terms of what I saw in the bones of those towns." In Norwich later in the day Monday, he saw a lot of old mills being repurposed for residential use.
He toured the city with Mayor Peter Nystrom, along with officials from Norwich Public Utilities and Norwich Community Development Corp. They took him to the Ponemah Mill development in Taftville, Hale Mill proposed redevelopment in Yantic, the Freeport-McMoRan copper plant, U.S. Foods, the Stanley Israelite Norwich Business Park, the Marina at American Wharf and Uncas Leap. Officials pushed for a new TIGER grant for freight rail improvements.
Day Staff Writer Claire Bessette contributed to this report.