In the early twentieth century, Waterbury enjoyed a thriving manufacturing-based economy, but as manufacturing declined across the United States in the seventies, so did the city’s fortunes. However, since 2011, the tide has turned, and the New England city of 110,000 is making a brilliant comeback. As Mayor Neil M. O’Leary likes to say, “Waterbury is open for business.”
“We’re pretty proud of the fact that we’re gaining momentum in the last few years, with new businesses opening, existing businesses expanding, and the unemployment rate down nine percent in six years,” says Mayor Neil O’Leary, who has been re-elected three times since 2011, winning a seventy percent majority for a four-year term in 2015. He is also in his second one-year term as president of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, representing 168 cities and towns.
O’Leary will once again seek re-election this November, “because we are excited about the direction the city is going in. We have a great team, everyone works well, and gets along well together, and I think the success speaks for itself.”
Director of Economic Development, Joe McGrath, provided Business in Focus with statistics related to key economic development indicators. These statistics incorporated data from 2012 to 2019, and subsequently showed that since the beginning of Mayor O’Leary’s tenure, the city has seen the creation of eighty-nine new businesses, nineteen expansions of existing businesses, and the creation of 2,460 new jobs. In addition, there are 880 jobs projected for the near future, for a total of 3,340.
To contextualize the city’s recent momentum, we looked at Waterbury in the first half of the twentieth century. That is when the city, founded in 1684, became a magnet for hardworking Americans as well as immigrants from Ireland, Italy, Poland, and Lithuania, who filled twenty thousand manufacturing jobs.
“At one time, we were the brass capital of the world,” says Mayor O’Leary. “We had the three largest brass manufacturers, Anaconda, Scovill’s, and Chase Brass, and we had Timex and Waterbury Clock, so we were known for brass, watches, and clocks. We were making brass buttons for every type of uniform including military and police. We were making munitions for the wars, and the city was booming. Then, in the seventies, plastics became our biggest competitor; the big three brass companies closed; thousands lost their jobs, and the city fell into a downward spiral.”
But not everyone gave up on Waterbury. “The people here are remarkable,” he says. “Even during the most trying times, people saw hope.” O’Leary was born and raised in Waterbury, joined the Waterbury Police Department in 1980, became chief of police in 2002 and then ran for mayor in 2011 with a vision of economic renaissance.
His inspiration was Waterbury’s manufacturing history. “The work ethic here is amazing because of the manufacturing backbone,” he says. Added to that were the empty factories and the power and water supply that had served the industry, all standing by. It was if they were slumbering, waiting for new businesses to recognize their potential. But first, a major cleaning was required.
When manufacturers closed their doors in the seventies and eighties, they did not leave pristine facilities, and those remnants of the industrial past had to be cleaned before they could be returned to a state of being usable, taxable property.
“Our manufacturing legacy left us with empty factories, all of which had varying levels of environmental contamination,” says the Mayor, “along with various parcels of vacant land unusable because materials were dumped on them from the factories back in the day when there was very little environmental protection. Owners would just dig holes and bury contaminated materials, and we have some of that, but the majority of our brownfields are former factory sites with buildings on them.”
As a result of Mayor O’Leary’s leadership, Waterbury has emerged as the state’s leader in brownfield identification and remediation. In 2016, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) honored him for his work in brownfield redevelopment and community revitalization. That same year, he was honored at EPA New England’s Environmental Merit Awards in Boston for cleaning many of Waterbury’s brownfields.
But the Mayor gives credit to outgoing Democratic Governor Dannel Malloy. “He understood the challenges the cities in Connecticut face,” he says, “and he was instrumental in putting together the state’s Brownfield Program in 2014. We had a great relationship with him, and now we’re looking forward to working with our new governor, Ned Lamont.”
Mayor O’Leary was pleased when Democratic Governor Lamont, in his inaugural address, mentioned the Waterbury Career Academy, a technical high school that opened five years ago and includes a $4 million manufacturing facility.
“It gives our students the opportunity to explore the manufacturing world, which is far different in 2019 than it was in the 1920s,” says Mayor O’Leary. “It’s advanced, hi-tech, and computer-driven, and it means our kids can extend their opportunities into the advanced manufacturing curriculum at Naugatuck Valley Community College.”
Business owners looking to come to Waterbury, conveniently located on Interstate 84 and Route 8, just two hours from Boston and ninety minutes from New York City, will find a skilled workforce that Mayor O’Leary says combines an old-fashioned New England work ethic with state-of-the-art training in the newest technology.
They will also find a revitalized downtown, made possible through a $19 million federal government Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant awarded in 2013. It is now in its second phase, as the project improves the Waterbury rail branch and enhances mass transit within the city.
The payoffs of this planning are the eighty-nine new businesses that have set up shop and the nineteen expansions of existing companies. MacDermid Specialty Solutions had been in Waterbury for over seventy years and is now a subsidiary of Platform Specialty Products Corporation, a global producer of advanced, specialty chemical products and a provider of technical services. “The expansion created eighty jobs and then added forty more when they opened up research and development laboratories across the street from the existing plant,” says Mayor O’Leary, “and these are good jobs paying anywhere between $50,000 and $250,000.”
“There’s Luvata, which supplies eighty percent of all MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) imaging machines throughout the world, with superconductive wires made right here. There’s Pepe’s Pizza of New Haven, and there’s CarMax, the pre-owned car retail giant, and they’ve created a couple of hundred jobs.”
“We’re also proud to have King Industries relocate here from Norwalk,” he continues. “They were outgrowing their existing space, and we were able to market a ten-acre parcel of land that was a remediated brownfield, and now it’s shovel ready. They are putting five buildings on that parcel, and they are interested in another six-acre parcel, as they are expanding their footprint much quicker than they anticipated.” King Industries is a fourth-generation, family-owned, international chemical company which provides solvents and additives for paints and oil used by the automotive and airline industries.
“Our mantra is we are open for business. We have site-ready buildings available, clean property, a skilled workforce, and currently have twenty-two brownfield remediation projects that will come to fruition within the next three to four years. And we will aggressively pursue any and all opportunities.”
One of the opportunities he says the city was aggressive in pursuing was Ideal Fish, a state-of-the-art aquaculture systems company dedicated to bringing fresh seafood to local markets and the only commercial facility of its kind in the northeastern U.S.
Eric Pedersen, founder, President, and Chief Executive Officer of Ideal Fish, launched his business in 2013 with financial and strategic partner Pentair, a developer of research aquaculture systems. “The mayor gets a lot of credit,” he told us, “because he realized there’s not a lot of capital available for this industry, and so he offered assistance both in terms of abatement for certain taxes, by sponsoring low-interest financing and by making administrative assistance available in terms of helping me with the regulatory requirements I had to meet to get my business set up,” explains Pedersen.
“I really can’t say enough good things about how the city has assisted in the development of this business and supported it as we went through the precursory stages leading up to production of fish that are ready for sale. And before the end of the year, we will be building aquaponics infrastructure which is a food production system that utilizes the waste from the fish to provide the nutrients for a hydroponics produce growing system,” he says.
“We’re in a 65,000-square-foot space, previously used to manufacture brass buttons, that we’ve repurposed to grow European sea bass, or branzino, in a recirculating aquaculture system – a collection of twenty-eight giant swimming pools with nearly three-quarters of a million gallons of water circulating between them,” explains Pedersen.
“Americans don’t eat a lot of seafood, because the quality is not very good, and by the time it gets to market, it’s not fresh,” he says, “but we’re trying to change that, so the consumer gets it within a few days of harvesting by eliminating the ‘middle-man’ distributor.”
These fish are free from the hormones, antibiotics, and chemicals which are used in sea cage aquaculture, an atmosphere he says that attracts pathogens such as sea lice, a problem for salmon farming. “That’s another advantage of raising fish in a closed containment system,” he says, noting that overfishing and other issues have virtually wiped out the Atlantic salmon and northern cod fishery, so that farmed fish, either in sea cages or in a closed contained environment, are the only sustainable options.
Another benefit is traceability. Pedersen refers to the romaine lettuce supply which, in the past year, has twice been contaminated with E. coli bacteria. The FDA and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have not been able to find the source, he says, because traceability has not been factored into its distribution.
All fish harvested at Ideal Fish are gill-tagged with a code, “which will take the consumer to our website which will tell them when that baby fish came into the country from France, what tank number it was raised in and the day it was harvested and shipped, which is within twenty-four hours.”
Waterbury’s model of repurposing existing manufacturing facilities and using some of them for aquaculture, “offers exciting opportunities for industrial America to pursue,” he says.
“It’s solving two issues. One is about solving a food security issue. What we’re looking to do with our aquaculture system is to fix that broken part of our food system, by providing complete transparency, traceability, and incomparable freshness. And the other issue we’re solving is how to bring manufacturing production back to this country, by utilizing the wonderful industrial manufacturing assets we already have.”