Stamford leads state in business growth — but some want more
STAMFORD — By most measures, Stamford stands out among Connecticut’s cities for its economic growth. That profile also attracts intense scrutiny as to whether the city’s economy is reaching its potential.
The debate about the extent of Stamford’s private-sector success has grown more pitched following shifts in recent months in the city’s corporate landscape. To many, Stamford’s record of consistently bringing in and supporting the growth of major firms points to its status as an economic powerhouse. But others see a city that can do more to fulfill its promise.
“We cannot be complacent, and we have no reason to be complacent,” said Stamford state Rep. William Tong, D-147, co-chairman of the state’s Commission on Economic Competitiveness. “The fact is we need to chart a new course for job growth that runs through our cities. Stamford is one of them and definitely the most important city in the state.”
Influx of firms
Established for decades as a major corporate hub in the Northeast, Stamford has landed a number of major arrivals in recent years.
First Five Plus, a state program established at the start of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s administration in 2011, has played a significant role in recruiting and keeping firms. Charter Communications, NBC Sports Group and the insurance firm Navigators have all relocated their headquarters to Stamford in the past five years.
Most recently, the state announced last month that Henkel Corp. would move its laundry, home care and beauty care headquarters from Arizona to Stamford. A $20 million loan from the state will support that project.
Another three companies — Deloitte, Pitney Bowes and Synchrony Financial — have committed to expanding their footprints in the city.
“With our Stamford companies, it says location, location and location,” said Catherine Smith, the state’s commissioner of economic and community development. “Companies want to be out of Manhattan but not so far out of Manhattan that they can’t be there in less than an hour. That’s a critical factor for companies that choose to come to Connecticut. They want to be on the train line.”
Seven of 15 companies participating in First Five Plus are in Stamford. No other city has more than one. Together, the Stamford firms have committed to retain some 4,100 jobs and create between 1,300 and 2,600 positions.
The Stamford-based companies are receiving some $117 million in First Five Plus loans and grants, compared with a local investment of about $215 million from those firms.
“The proximity to New York is big,” said Synchrony CEO and President Margaret Keane. “We wanted to commit, and the location of Stamford allows us to attract talent from NYC.”
After spinning off from GE in 2014, Synchrony has expanded locally with some $20 million in state aid. It now employs about 600 at its Long Ridge Road headquarters. The Stamford contingent could grow by another 100.
Deloitte executives also cite their Stamford office’s location — particularly its proximity to financial services and consumer-industrial products firms — as a major draw. About 1,100 of their employees are now based in Stamford, while another 300 are in Hartford. The company’s Connecticut headcount could eventually hit 1,650, according to targets tied to its $14.5 million in First Five Plus funding.
“We continue to reiterate how important this state and the businesses in the area are to us,” said Heather Ziegler, Deloitte’s Stamford managing partner. “We continue to try to grow, and we are making progress on that growth.”
Compared with the state’s other metropolitan areas, Stamford continues to perform strongly. Its economic growth rate between 2010 and 2015 led all Connecticut cities with more than 100,000 residents, according to a recent state Department of Labor report.
“Stamford survived a very tough recession, and it has a high office vacancy rate, but it’s still doing very well,” said Joe McGee, vice president of public policy for The Business Council and co-chairman of the Commission on Economic Competitiveness. “The jobs that Stamford is creating are well-paying jobs. When you compare Stamford to Bridgeport, Hartford and New Haven, Stamford is a beacon of success.”
While Stamford has notched a number of successes, it has also faced setbacks.
Marriott International announced late last month it would lay off 163 Stamford-based employees at the turn of the year, a move that would represent the first round of local downsizing following its September acquisition of Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide.
Some major financial-services have also scaled back locally. Since the beginning of 2015, Royal Bank of Scotland has laid off close to 500 Stamford-based employees.
“Overall this city is not booming,” said Jack Condlin, president and CEO of the Stamford Chamber of Commerce. “At best, we’re holding our own and my concern is there are going to be more layoffs with these larger corporations. What Stamford could use is an injection and infusion of a good-size corporation coming here, so the outside world could see that Stamford is a place where you want to be.”
Smith acknowledged travails at RBS and UBS, but said she sees promise among other parts of the financial-services sector in Stamford.
“RBS and UBS, unfortunately, have had a tougher row to hoe,” Smith said. “But, having said that, there are still numerous financial services that continue to grow, such as Synchrony.”
State officials said that they remain confident in First Five Plus’ effectiveness. The program has enough funding to add several more companies.
“Right now, I feel very comfortable that there are a number of interesting prospects,” Smith said. “We want to make sure these are good investments for the state. And we think Stamford is a great location for a whole variety of companies.”
Business and government leaders agree that the state also needs to improve Metro-North rail service and reduce congestion on I-95 to make Stamford more attractive. The Business Council of Fairfield County’s proposals include 30-minute rail service between Stamford and Grand Central Terminal, with that trip now taking about 50 minutes.
Deloitte’s Ziegler said that the layout of the downtown Metro-North station and traffic on the streets around the rail depot should also be tackled. Many of Deloitte’s employees commute from New York City and elsewhere.
“It’s time for some improvements,” Ziegler said. “We need to make some investments because it is not to the level we’d expect and like to have Connecticut and Stamford be as successful as possible.”
Tong wants to see city and state officials set more ambitious goals set for the Stamford’s economic growth.
“We need to do a better job at state and city level,” Tong said. “We need a more concerted effort and more of a focus on marketing Stamford as a destination for large employers and medium and small businesses, as well. There has to be more cooperating and more of a vision laid out about how we will market our city and our region.”
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