Business council head talks education, politics

Greenwich and the nation have been buffeted by a difficult economy and rapid technological and demographic changes, but the town has led the way in meeting these challenges head on, said the guest speaker at the Greenwich Chamber of Commerce’s annual breakfast last week.

As the state and Greenwich are impacted by immigrants, and residents from other states are moving in, Christopher Bruhl said a challenge is to ensure that community involvement remains strong.

Sometimes that can be difficult, Mr. Bruhl said, as he joked that “never in the history of the world has a rental car been washed,” to illustrate the point that people who only rent do not have a strong bond with what they use. However, he praised Greenwich residents for their involvement even though many of them were not born and raised in the town.

“This community really works because people accept their connectedness while they are here. That is the model the rest of the state needs to embrace,” Mr. Bruhl said.

Mr. Bruhl spoke to approximately 70 people in attendance at the annual breakfast at the Greenwich Water Club on Nov. 6. Mr. Bruhl is president and CEO of the Business Council of Fairfield County and a professor in the master’s in business administration program at UConn Stamford.

Turning his outloook beyond Greenwich, he said while there are challenges, America remains a country of tremendous opportunities to people in other countries.

“We cannot forget that in America our streets are paved with gold,” he said, referring to the allure of America to generations of immigrants looking for a better life.

Increasing access to education will help lead to that better life, Mr. Bruhl said, as he warned the state faces a challenge in ensuring that its workforce receives the education it needs to meet the demands of a knowledge-based economy.

“It is in our self-interest morally, of course, spiritually, of course, economically, it is in our self-interest to ensure not that our children go to Northwestern, Stanford or Harvard — that is a personal family choice if we want that — it is in our interest that every single kid just doesn’t finish high school but every single kid gets at least of two years of community college,” he said.

Mr. Bruhl told the audience that studies have shown that in Connecticut within 10 years about 70% of the jobs will require at least two years of post-secondary education while current projections say only about 40% of people will meet that educational level. That will result in systemic unemployment at the same time that employers are looking for skilled employees, he said, unless more people get into post-secondary schools.

The community and the state can achieve that, he said, and it’s vital for the state’s future for that to be done.

He also touched on Greenwich’s unique voting habits, a day after an election that saw Republican First Selectman Peter Tesei lead the GOP ticket to an overwhelming victory. But Greenwich, a strongly Republican town, is politically out of step with the state as far as election results go, Mr. Bruhl said, because the town reliably backs Republican candidates at the local, state and federal level even as the rest of the state increasingly votes Democratic.

He noted that the state’s congressional caucus is Democratic, including Greenwich residents U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal and U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, as are all the statewide officeholders, with Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy at the top. Additionally, Democrats have majorities in both the state Senate and the state House of Representatives.

That, however, has not prevented state Republicans from contributing effectively, Mr. Bruhl argued, compared to many of their fellow Republicans on the national stage.

He said state Republicans are “effective, moderate and thoughtful” and know how to engage with Democrats to ensure the state is governed effectively. There isn’t a “winner take all” mentality in politics in the state compared to many other states, Mr. Bruhl argued.

That marks a stark contrast with many of their Republican cousins across the country, particularly in the South, he said.

“The people from the former slave states who are pretending to have the national interest at heart … are not really speaking to the large share of Connecticut.”

Mr. Bruhl said political moderation in Connecticut means that there is no fear of change from a Republican to a Democrat, or vice versa, when elections are held, such as last week’s mayoral election in Stamford, where Democrat David Martin is replacing Republican Michael Pavia, who did not run again.

“We are not going to see dramatic whole changes as we move from Pavia to Martin, for example,” he said.

Greenwich is not only changing demographically, as is the rest of the state, but also changing in where people go to work, Mr. Bruhl said.

Historically Greenwich’s population growth was driven by people who moved to Greenwich yet commuted to jobs in New York City. That has changed, he said, as Greenwich has become a community where thousands flock to work every day. In fact, Greenwich residents are more much more likely to take the train to New York City on a Saturday than on a weekday, Mr. Bruhl said, and joked that Fifth Avenue sends its thanks to Greenwich for that fact.

The Chamber is also meeting the demands of changing times, said its board chairman, Scott Weiner, who touched on a couple of improvements the Chamber has undertaken in 2013, including a new online presence.

“We introduced a new and improved website, we came out with a new logo this year that we are excited about,” he said.

The most important accomplishment of the Chamber in the past year was adding new members, he said.

“We really had an influx of talent, excitement and enthusiasm, and that is a great thing,” Mr. Weiner said. “Our membership is expanding and we are close to 500 strong, and that is a very good number for us.”

He appealed to his audience to be salespeople for the Chamber, to enlist more people into the Chamber.

“We ask everyone of the room to talk with your friends and colleagues about getting involved and supporting our Chamber and helping us in our aggressive projects in 2014,” he said.

He also praised the organization’s executive director, Marcia O’Kane, who has completed her first year in that position and said she was excited about the group’s future.

“This past year has been a year of hard work,” Ms. O’Kane told the members in the audience. “Stay tuned for a lot more — 2014 is going to be a very important year,” she said.

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