Laying Out the Welcome Mat for New Business
Entering an imposing brick building with enough offices to require wayfinding signs can be an intimidating first step for prospective small business owners. Navigating the halls is overwhelming much less figuring out a system of approvals and permits necessary to open your business’s doors.
Towns in eastern Connecticut are putting out the welcome mat to new businesses, helping them find their way successfully through the process. Much more than leading them through town approvals, economic development professionals are ready to assist from concept to financing to real estate.
“Investing in economic development initiatives pays strong dividends to towns,” said Tony Sheridan, President and CEO of the Chamber. “The returns are dollars on the cent in expanded tax revenue, job growth, and housing values. Creating an environment conducive to nurturing new businesses and business expansion is an essential component.”
People with a talent or a dream bring their idea for a new business to Jim Bellano, the Town of Windham’s Director of Economic Development. “No matter what questions they have, it’s my job to find them answers or connect them with someone who can answer their questions,” said Bellano, who joined Windham in 2015 after the economic development role had sat empty for years.
Each person comes in at a different stage and Bellano leads them to the next step by taking stock of the project to determine the best path forward. For example, he brings a detailed knowledge of financing programs—through banks, grants, state and federal programs—and applies it to the unique circumstances of the potential business owner. This invaluable resource to business owners can open pathways they may not have discovered on their own as well as offer tremendous time savings.
Bellano emphasizes a proactive approach to getting businesses going. Early in the approval process, he facilitates a meeting with representatives from all the town offices that will be involved. This plan review helps businesses craft a design that meets requirements and prevents surprises along the way. “It frustrates business owners who have delays or have to spend money twice,” said Bellano. This meeting allows them to begin with plans designed to meet compliance.
He continues to be involved throughout the process. “You can’t just put something in place and expect it to stay there. You have to be proactive and make sure things are running smoothly.” He routinely. drops by projects under construction to check on progress.
The town-wide effort to make the process as clean as possible has contributed to a 14% increase in valuation. The approach is business friendly and proactive. This can mean going to bat for a potential developer.
When Martin Kelly proposed high-end apartments in the Hale building and the Hooker Hotel—two deteriorating buildings that were the “missing tooth in the smile of Willimantic’s Main Street”—the town worked with him to get state approvals for the redevelopment of the historic buildings. The full project brings 400 units to the Eastern Connecticut State University town and meets the trend toward an urban lifestyle, where one walks from home to work, dining, and shopping.
“Housing is the largest economic development driver over the coming years,” notes Paige Bronk Town of Groton’s Economic and Community Development Manager Paige. Groton is home to major regional employers, such as Pfizer and General Dynamics Electric Boat, but 80% of jobs are held by commuters from the region. Groton would like to keep employees in town with high-end apartments that appeal to younger workers and “close the loop” on economic development opportunities.
The market for these high-quality housing options is expanding with the entry of marine technology firm ThayerMahan, who recently won a $19.4 million contract from the Office of Naval Research. ThayerMahan is working with the town on repurposing the Groton Heights School, constructed in 1912 in the historic Groton Bank neighborhood.
“Its prominent location allows them to grow and have a foothold here for decades to come,” said Bronk. ThayerMahan’s presence and addition of 50 jobs in phase 1 of their expansion fits into the goal of building Groton and New London into the Silicon Valley of undersea technology. Supporting this vision of the future, the City of Groton and New London have focused economic development efforts on the waterfront, which they shared at the Chamber’s State of the Thames River Region event in July. ThayerMahan’s redevelopment of the Groton Heights building serves as an anchor to regional development efforts.
Repurposing town-owned buildings to bring them back on to the tax rolls is just one initiative in a multi-pronged economic development approach being taken by the Town of Groton. Marketing these types of opportunities, economic development initiatives as well as the town itself is the goal of an expansive website ExploreMoreGroton.com.
Visually engaging and content rich, ExploreMoreGroton.com markets the businesses and attractions to visitors while laying out that welcome mat to potential small businesses and major developers. The first stop for entrepreneurs, the website provides detailed information on incentives, zoning, market research, financing, workforce and starting a business. Site selection information connects interested businesses to town buildings, available private properties and financial incentives.
(Photo: Economic Development Commission members visit businesses regularly to listen to concerns, support continued success and drop of this postcard.)
The town recently completely overhauled their zoning regulations and restructured zoning and planning into one commission to expedite the approval process. Additionally, the town has made a critical investment in Economic Development staff. The department of four offer a business-friendly reception as well as anticipate the next opportunities.
Zoning regulations received a full rewrite in North Stonington in 2015. Town planning was “very deliberate about what we wanted where,” said Juliet Hodge, Planning, Development, and Zoning Official. Designed to streamline the process, the new regulations address needed rezoning, taking away the unpredictability of special permitted uses. Businesses can plan expansions years out with a clear understanding of acceptable uses.
The new regulations in North Stonington also anticipated trends in agritourism, approving accessory uses to farms including event barns and onsite food production. “Through the regulations we are acknowledging our agricultural heritage and building on it,” said Hodge. Popular winery Jonathan Edwards enjoys successful event spaces. New businesses in North Stonington include Farmtrue, which produces organic, sustainably sourced ghee, and Jovial Foods, which makes gluten-free pasta and organic sauce.
North Stonington sped up their approval process in town hall by combining Land Use and Building Departments to maximize resources and increase communication as they manage several commissions under one umbrella. Adopting a proactive approach to business retention, expansion and startup, Hodge and commission members connect with businesses and get ready for the next innovation.
Economic Development doesn’t reside just in the offices of town hall. Existing businesses can play a vital role in welcoming new businesses and contributing to mutual success.
Launching a new business—especially one with a new concept—can be challenging. When Lindsi Bratland decided to open Pure Barre in Waterford, she had to coordinate all the details of setting up the business, while introducing the community to a new fitness trend. Fellow business owners opened their doors to Bratland to conduct classes based around a ballet barre and low impact, high intensity movements. The classes—held at diverse locations including restaurants, boutiques, and salons—created a unique draw for the businesses while giving Bratland a chance to build interest in Pure Barre.
“It’s a fun way to connect people,” said Bratland, who is quick to recommend a fellow business to one of her clients. “I am proud to continue to introduce people to [other businesses] because it’s a great way to be more connected and serve the community I live in.”
Towns looking to tap into the knowledge and energy of innovative economic development can connect with the Connecticut Economic Development Association (CEDAS). This association of economic development professionals provides resources and training. Best Practices Economic Development & Land Use Planning is a certification program to spur continuous improvement for use by planners and economic development professionals. The program accelerates the sharing of best practices and improves the overall quality of economic development services at the local level, benefiting the whole state. For information on CEDAS program, visit cedas.org.
“I think building relationships is what it’s all about, with customers, the community and other small business owners,” said Pure Barre owner Bratland. “It’s what brings us all together.”
With so many towns taking new paths to spur growth, look for future articles about economic development initiatives throughout eastern Connecticut.
Upcoming Economic Development Workshops
Arts and Economic Development: Build Your Local Economy with Creativity
Friday, October 4, 2019, 10am-2pm, Charter Oak Federal Credit Union Community Room, Waterford
For more information, visit Southeast Cultural Coalition at Culturesect.org.
Small Business Resource Forum with Federal, State and Local Agencies
Tuesday, September 24, 2019, 6-9pm, Montville High School Cafeteria
For more information, visit ChamberECT.com/events.