State official tells Shelton audience: ‘Slow but steady progress’ on economy

State Economic Development Commissioner Catherine H. Smith told a Shelton audience that while 40,000 private sector jobs have been created in Connecticut in the past few years, more work needs to be done.

“We’re making slow but steady progress,” said Smith, who previously worked in the insurance and financial services industries.

“We think we have a great business climate that’s getting better every day,” she said.

Smith, speaking to a group of about 60 businesspeople and government officials, said Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s administration has put in place an economic development strategy to build on the state’s strengths, focus on high-growth business areas, and build and enrich the labor pool.

The event was held at the Greater Valley Chamber of Commerce office and co-sponsored by the Connecticut Business and Industry Association.

'She gets around the state'

Bill Purcell, Chamber president, said it was the third time Smith had visited Shelton to talk about economic development efforts.

“She gets around the state, spreading the good word about the things going in the state,” Purcell said.

Smith spent her private sector career at Aetna and ING, and has a master’s degree from Yale.

Small business was the focus

The session was designed to inform small businesses about state programs available to help them. “Small business will drive the growth in the economy,” Smith said.

Small business “got really hammered in the Great Recession,” she said, and access to outside capital was tightened. Many small firms still are leery of the risks involved in hiring new employees, she said.

Because of this, the state has established programs to provide loans and grants to companies, including one that subsidizes the first six months of a new employee’s salary.

Another program gives a tax credit up to $700 per month per new employee, for up to three years. More than 1,000 companies are involved in this tax credit program.

Smith said the employee subsidy programs shouldn’t be viewed as government giveaways since the new workers pay taxes and employers add equipment and make other related investments.

“This is investing in ourselves. … It will have great payback,” she said.

Existing businesses also a priority

Smith said an important goal is to retain and grow existing businesses in the state. “We’ve got to help them no matter how many governors come,” she said of efforts by other states to woo away Connecticut companies.

Another goal is to support innovation through incubator space, technical assistance and mentoring. “You have new incubator space popping up all over the state,” Smith said.

Officials are working with the state’s college system — from UConn to community colleges — so these institutions of higher learning will teach the skills needed by employers.

“We need to be developing a new pipeline of talent,” Smith said.

Group assists with business plans

The event also included a brief presentation by Janet Siegenthaler of the Women’s Business Development Council, a nonprofit organization that helps companies with business plans and other tasks related to securing outside financing.

Siegenthaler said the WBDC, which has an office in Shelton, has a high rate of success.