Dan Onofrio’s 14th floor office at the Bridgeport Regional Business Council (BRBC) provides a to-die-for panoramic view that sweeps across the shoreline area. Onofrio began as president and CEO of the BRBC in November after an 11-year stint as executive vice president of operations and general manager of business systems operations at Environmental Data Resources. He is also a franchise partner in three Rita’s Ice franchises in Connecticut and was the co-founder of the Greater Valley Chamber of Commerce’s Young Emerging Professionals business networking group.
Business Journal reporter Phil Hall visited with Onofrio at his office to discuss his first month at the BRBC and his plans for the organization into the coming year.
What attracted you to taking on the leadership role at the BRBC?
“I’m coming from the corporate space. I have always been active in the communities I’ve lived in and worked in, which happens to be the lower Naugatuck River Valley in Shelton. When the company I was working for was sold earlier this year, I was decompressing and reevaluating what I would do next. I really wanted to take the opportunity to see what existed in the community space and the public sector, and I was fortunate enough that the timing worked out with Mickey Herbert [the previous president and CEO] retiring in October. The greater Bridgeport region has so much opportunity and I see so much potential to be part of the good things that are ahead of us.”
What do you see as the challenges and the opportunities facing the region in 2019?
“I’ll start off with the challenges. There is a perception that it is difficult to do business in Connecticut, so I think that we — not just as a region but as a state — need to change the perception of what Connecticut is and what we have to offer.
“That leads right into the opportunities. If you look out this window, we are at the nexus of all transportation, with the port, highway and rail system, we need to take advantage of those opportunities and have businesses realize the resources we have here. And not just the infrastructure. We have the University of Bridgeport, Housatonic Community College, Fairfield University and Sacred Heart University here, and their students are our future, so we need to create pathways for them to stay here. I see the opportunities for the next generation to plant their roots here. To do that, we need to build bridges between the business community and the public sector and figure out a way to attract new business.”
Speaking of the view from your window, you could also see Sikorsky Airport. Do you think it is realistic to expand the airport in order to attract a new era of commercial flights?
“I think it is realistic. I don’t think the opportunity exists for a huge international airport, but certainly there is a need in this part of the state to have more opportunities for flights. And not just on the business side, but for commercial transport. I think we have some hurdles, but it is a resource we need to take advantage of.”
On the way over to your office in downtown Bridgeport, it was difficult not to notice a number of empty retail stores. What can the BRBC do to encourage new retailers and support the existing stores?
“For the Small Business Saturday shopping event that takes place right after Thanksgiving, we put up some simple social media pages to get the small-business community together and get their message out into the wider community. We were only able to launch that a week and a half before the day, but a number of businesses I visited were so grateful and thankful for doing it on their behalf.
“One of my top priorities is to get engaged with the small-business community as well as the large corporations, and to work with the universities to see how we can create that ecosystem to create a sustainable downtown.”
During the recent election, the question of tolls was a contentious issue. Where does the BRBC stand on that?
“Obviously, we need to figure out as a state how to create more revenues. Is tolls the answer? I don’t know. What I will say is that we will get behind what our business community has to say and will go from there as we engage the wider community.”
Another sticky subject in the past election was tax increases. Will the BRBC be in Hartford for the next General Assembly session to lobby on that issue?
“Again, we have to stand behind what our constituents believe in, and it is our job to get all the people at the table to see where is the compromise. Obviously, there isn’t a silver bullet here. We have to cut spending and generate new sources of revenue.
“The new legislative session is going to start in January, and we’d like to go up there with a specific agenda. What those items will be is now being discussed, but I intend on engaging the business community. Additionally, our local and state representatives need to come together as well, so they can hear from the community about what’s important to them.”
Ned Lamont campaigned for governor on his experience as a businessman. Do you believe that he can bring a private sector approach to running the state government?
“I don’t know a lot about Ned Lamont, to be honest with you. But our state needs change and it’s not going to be an easy battle. In order to attract new businesses here, we have to be able to talk that talk and remove the barriers of doing business. Having that experience is a valuable asset, so he needs to leverage that experience. Will he be successful at it? I hope he is, and we’re going to do our part to make him successful.”
Your predecessor at the helm of the BRBC, Mickey Herbert, was very enthusiastic about the proposed MGM Bridgeport project. Do you share his enthusiasm?
“I do. We need a shot in the arm and MGM is more than a shot in the arm. Not only does it bring jobs, but it brings activity to Bridgeport. People will come to Bridgeport as a destination. I look at the Webster Bank Arena and when they have events there, we see the overflow in the downtown to visit our restaurants and our shops. That is a positive thing for Bridgeport and I think it will spark a lot of other development projects.”
Mayor Joe Ganim of Bridgeport teamed with Mayor Toni Harp of New Haven in a two-city proposal to attract Amazon’s second headquarters to the region, and the two mayors also teamed up with the MGM Bridgeport project. Do you see yourself working with your New Haven counterpart on future projects?
“Garrett F. Sheehan, the CEO of the Greater New Haven Chamber of Commerce, is also relatively new in his role. We’ve talked a few times on the phone and we intend on collaborating. We share the shoreline and we would be foolish not to partner and collaborate on potential opportunities.
I would go further and say the metro cities of Bridgeport, Hartford, New Haven, Waterbury and Stamford would be foolish not to collaborate more for the state of Connecticut. Who else but us, the representatives of the business community, can help but be the cheerleaders and rally change for the state?”
Looking out your window again, I am reminded that this part of the state was once a stronghold of manufacturing — but there is very little evidence of that today. Is it realistic to think manufacturing can return to the region?
“Manufacturing is not dead, it’s changed. We need to embrace the new technology and continually evolve. We need to identify the needs that exist and promote those opportunities in the region. We need to be leveraging the universities, because they know the technologies that are cutting edge, and partner their programs with businesses that maybe don’t have the funding to invest in R&D and see if we can create a public-private relationship to help smaller businesses develop the products.”
What is your 2019 forecast for the regional and national economy?
“Looking at the opportunities in Bridgeport, I see a really good future. Whether we realize it in 2019 is another thing. If policy in Hartford can change, we will see a domino effect of activity in Connecticut that will boost the economy. But it’s not a silver bullet — there are a multitude of things that need to happen.
Nationally, people are feeling good, and there is a cautious optimism that things will continue. But you don’t know what the markets are going to do. So, ride the wave as long as you can, I suppose.”