WILTON — Peter Denious faces a daunting task — to reinvigorate the business climate in Connecticut.

A Wilton resident, Denious reviewed his plans at the Wilton Chamber of Commerce’s “Eggs and the Economy” economic forecast breakfast on Wednesday, Feb. 5, where he was the featured speaker.

Out of the gate, Denious said the former Connecticut Economic Resource Center (CERC), which he now helms as its president and CEO, has been renamed and rebranded AdvanceCT, as of Feb. 3.

AdvanceCT is a nonprofit organization that works to advance economic competitiveness in Connecticut.

It has a public/private partnership with the state, and gets funding from the state’s Department of Economic Development (DECD) and the private sector. “We are not a state agency,” Denious said. “I don’t work for the governor, I work for my board of directors.”

Denious left a successful career as a private equity and venture capital professional to take the CERC job last August.

CERC’s new name, AdvanceCT, says it all, Denious said. “We are trying to advance the state forward by partnering with the business community, government, and the not-for-profit community,” he said.

AdvanceCT is focused on three things: business engagement, business retention and business recruitment, he said.

“We are trying to keep businesses here, and we’re trying to attract businesses. We’ve got to grow. We’ve got to get the state moving forward, and we have to do it in a more creative way that taps the resources of a broader community than has historically been the case,” he said.

He commended AdvanceCT for having a professional board of directors, co-chaired by Indra Nooyi, former CEO of PepsiCo, and James Smith, former chairman of Webster Bank.

He knows his group has their work cut out for them.

Following the recession in 2008, Connecticut has endured economic decline with a number of businesses leaving the state. In 2016, General Electric left a big hole when it exited Fairfield for Massachusetts, and the state’s Fortune 500 companies have reduced in number from 35 to 16.

“We do have real problems and real challenges in Connecticut. But I am convinced, we are a small state of 3.8 million people and 1.7 million jobs and we can move the needle. If this were Texas, California or Pennsylvania, this job, this role and this challenge would be very difficult. But we’re not. We are a small state. We can do better,” he said.

In order to engage and retain businesses, AdvanceCT is making an effort to speak to Connecticut businesses and listen to their concerns. “So many businesses say they’ve never heard from the state and were never able to verbalize what their challenges were or what their frustrations were. We’re going to go out and capture that and take it to Hartford and be a kind of conduit of communication for the private sector,” he said.

As for recruiting, Denious said he was disturbed to find representatives from South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia constantly in the state, calling on Connecticut companies all the time.

“Connecticut has never done that,” he said. “But we are going to do it. We are going to go out and recruit. Can we add 100,000 jobs in the next five to seven years? Yes we can, and we have an incredible network of support,” he said, referring to AdvanceCT’s board of directors and the DECD.

What is Connecticut selling?

Discussing the state’s identity, Denious asked, “What is Connecticut selling? What is our value proposition?”

The answer, he said, is no one knows. “No one knows what we are selling. We don’t know ourselves. We have a branding and image problem,” he said.

He said Connecticut has a lot to sell. “We have great companies, financial services, insurance, advance manufacturing, bioscience, software and data services, all are pillars of strength. We have incredible schools. We’re ranked 13th in the country for being the most family friendly,” he said.

To improve the state’s brand and image, he said AdvanceCT is working with DECD on an economic action plan. “We’ve got to get out there and tell our story,” he said.

The plan will deal with issues such as job growth as well as the economic wealth gap in the state.

When it comes to the state’s median household income, he said, 40% of the state’s households are not earning a living wage. “This plan has to address these challenges,” he said.

He said the state also has to address technology, which he sees as both a threat and an opportunity. “It is completely changing our world and our jobs,” he said.

He said nearly one third of the jobs in the state are under threat of being replaced by technology. The opportunity part, he said, is investing in innovation and attracting businesses that will move the state forward.

The best locations for technology businesses, he said, are the state’s “urban centers” which attract young people who have hi-tech skills. “Young people want to live in urban centers that are vibrant, liveable and are not too expensive. We have to do a better job at keeping and bringing back young people,” he said.

He said most people are leaving Connecticut due to retirement, and to replace them, the state needs to do a better job attracting a young, hi-tech workforce. “We’re not meeting the skills that are being required of the companies that are here. Electric Boat (in Groton) is building world-class nuclear submarines and has a workforce challenge because it can’t find enough skilled workers,” he said.

Infrastructure

To become more accessible, he said the state has to invest in its infrastructure and transportation systems. He said Connecticut is ranked 35th when it comes to commuting time and 43rd when it comes to road quality.

“This is a must when it comes to economic development. If we were able to knock 15 minutes off the commute from Manhattan to Stamford, that would be a game changer. It would effectively make Stamford a borough of Manhattan,” he said.

Wilton Selectwoman Deb McFadden asked if AdvanceCT’s economic action plan has a component to address suburban communities around the urban cores, such as Wilton.

Denious said while the plan calls for investment in the cities, it will affect suburban areas as well. “This will touch everybody if we get it right, and Wilton is going to benefit. We are going to bring businesses to Fairfield County, New Haven, Bridgeport and Hartford,” he said.

It is also important, he said, to invest in communities in suburban areas to deal with wealth gap issues.

pgay@wiltonbulletin.com