For nearly two decades, Northeast Utilities has been an unusually strong and imaginative force in economic development in Connecticut and western Massachusetts.
The company's economic development and community relations department had a small core of bright people who founded, funded or otherwise got the company involved in such initiatives as the Hartford-Springfield Economic Partnership, Connecticut Main Street Center, Community Builders Institute, Bradley Development League, MetroHartford Alliance and Team New England. The company is a longtime major supporter of the Connecticut Economic Resource Center, the state's marketing arm.
But the future of this innovative involvement is now in serious question.
Key Executives Laid Off
NU merged with Boston-based NStar in April, and as the companies joined their corporate operations, the new NU has taken a different philosophical tack on economic development.
The three key company executives promoting the existing economic development programs, Douglas Fisher, David Driver and Thomas Marano, were all laid off in September, as The Hartford Business Journal reported.
Company spokesman Al Lara said the company is still committed to funding community and charitable organizations in the region. He said its new approach to economic development is being reviewed, but that a "grass-roots strategy" is emerging, in which NU representatives work with each community.
According to other sources, the new department is more focused on community liaison for emergency response in cases of storms or other crises, not on the large-scale, proactive economic development efforts that have characterized the past two decades.
This change apparently reflects the low-key marketing philosophy of the Boston-based managers of the new company.
Why They Were Needed
While it's too soon to say how this will play out, we were impressed by what Messrs. Fisher, Driver and Marano were doing, both from a civic and business perspective.
Take, for example, Connecticut Main Street, a program dedicated to reviving historic downtowns around the state. Since it was founded by Mr. Fisher and others in 1995, it has triggered nearly $1 billion in investment in dozens of downtowns. Since 2007, despite the recession, downtowns with Main Street programs have seen a 20 percent increase in jobs, an 18 percent increase in new businesses and a 68 percent increase in private investment.
This is good for the cities and for NU's bottom line. With more commercial activity, NU sells more electricity in areas where circuits and other infrastructure already exist. Funding Connecticut Main Street is enlightened self-interest.
Or consider the Hartford-Springfield partnership. By bringing together chambers of commerce, planners, businesses, colleges, government agencies and others, the partnership has been able to take part in trade shows, lobby for initiatives such as the new New Haven-Hartford-Springfield commuter rail line and restructuring of governance at Bradley International Airport, and promote tourism, education and workforce development.
For example, the partnership help produce a $4.9 million U.S. Department of Labor grant earlier this year to the Capital Workforce Partners in Hartford and the Regional Employment Board of Hampden County in Springfield to train nurses and other health workers. In the past decade, the partnership has brought about $16 million in federal grants to the region.
"It's been very useful," said Lyle Wray, executive director of the Capitol Region Council of Governments. It is indeed useful: It makes the area more attractive to businesses and residents, which in turn means more customers for electricity.
The partnership is supported by member dues and will continue to exist. NU sponsored some of the marketing efforts, such as attendance at trade shows. Hopefully that will continue.
But what is lost is the substantial expertise and institutional knowledge that the three former NU executives brought to the table. Mr. Fisher and Mr. Driver are the chairmen, respectively, of the Hartford-Springfield partnership and Connecticut Economic Resource Center (but will soon be stepping down).
Marketing works, especially with experienced professionals at the helm. As NU's new managers continue to review their operations in Connecticut, they might want to take a second look at what Mr. Fisher and his crew were doing here. They were making things better.