With its easy proximity to New York City and largely affluent demographics, Fairfield County, Conn., is uniquely poised to resurrect its 1960s-and-’70s-era heyday as the go-to county for big businesses that are over their Manhattan projects. With a workforce that soldiers through a bleary-eyed commute into the city, and proponents of the creative class (which includes everyone from novelists to scientists to marketers) suggesting that creative people contribute to the growth of the towns they inhabit and are clustered around places where they can work and play, look for Fairfield to attract everyone from media companies to PR firms to high-tech outfits. The makeup of Fairfield County is solid: According to U.S. Census data, Fairfield is just about 50/50 in terms of gender and has 43.4 percent of county residents boasting a college degree. Is it time for the corporate world to take another look at Fairfield so that residents can stop “occupying” the train station every day? But there’s much work to be done before there’s real “work to be done” in the county. Here are five trends affecting the future of Fairfield:
We all know that Fairfield County residents are among the highest earners in the country, but look for the 1 percent versus the 99 percent to become an issue here as well as on Wall Street. Recent Census Bureau numbers showed an increase in the poverty rate here—9.4 percent in 2010, up from 8.3 percent in 2009—and we’re seeing more homeless people on the streets, so we’ll also see a bigger divide between the haves and have-nots. But it’s not just the 1 percent who are feeling the injustice; it’s women as well. Though Connecticut women have the highest full-time median income of any in the U.S., according to a recent article on the Daily Fairfield, “[t]he bad news is that female workers in the state are making less than they did four years ago. Their salaries have declined 4 percent since 2007 in a state where the price of everything from housing, gas and food … to health care and day care has risen dramatically and is among the highest in the nation.” And it gets worse: Stats also reveal that Connecticut had the second-worst wage gender gap in 2010 among the six New England states, according to the Hartford Business Journal. Women in Connecticut aren’t getting a fair shake, so look for them to step up in 2012, as well as the less-moneyed set to try and level the playing field. There has been much debate over job creation, which will surely continue at all the best fundraisers, dinner parties and diner breakfasts in the area. According to a piece this summer in The New York Times, Connecticut “has finished dead last nationally in creating new jobs” and its finances “are among the most troubled in the nation: it is last or close to last in financing pension obligations and retaining reserves for emergencies, and near the top in per-capita debt.” And though it is true that eliminating jobs would help close the deficit, the stakes are way too high to turn Fairfield into a sort of work-barren ghetto for the 1 percent. There’s one trend we’ve seen of late that might turn things around and create more opportunities and jobs, and lower costs: going green. A recent article on the Connecticut Mirror argued that it’s not just about slashing or creating jobs, but also about reshifting priorities to include “an increased focus on ‘green energy,’ backing technologies to promote more efficient electricity consumption and promoting electric vehicles to combat rising petroleum prices.” Boulder, Colo., which admittedly is populated with alpha do-gooders, is one of many places getting it right by living green—and attracting businesses such as Pangea Organics, with like-minded values. And like Fairfield, Boulder is close to a larger city: Denver. But if you’re worried that too much kum ba yah is not exactly the order of the day in Fairfield County, think about this: Local is the new black as computers take to the cloud. Regardless of whether you live in a huge metro area or a small country town, farmers markets are all the rage and eating local has become not only desired, but also the norm. Take Brooklyn, for instance. Years ago it was decidedly working-class and not terribly upscale. Cut to now, and the borough is prospering as a hip alternative to Manhattan, with flea markets, farmers markets and urban farms galore to instill the ultimate in locavore pride. A craving for local produce isn’t the only thing that makes this trend a keeper, though; media is going loco for local, too. Aol’s Patch and other hyperlocal media outlets are superceding network news as a way to find out what’s happening in our communities, especially as we enter another winter and want to watch the weather. In light of this recent trend, we’ve talked about companies needing to go local to microtarget potential customers and to attract talent, build pride, revitalize towns and grow local communities—and about the fact that government can encourage these positive outcomes by creating incentives for business to go smaller-town and foster a prosperous local environment. (If you build it, they will come.) Which brings us back to the creative class. Richard Florida argues in favor of a creative class as the next big way to stimulate the economy—and it looks as if Fairfield County, and Connecticut in general, could be a more tree-lined Hollywood and Vine (or at least a smaller version of Madison Avenue?). If Pittsburgh is quickly becoming the new Silicon Valley, can Fairfield become a new bright light, just not in the big city? It’s already home to “The Jerry Springer Show” and TBS’ “Are We There Yet?” series, and now a Sony Pictures series in Stamford. NBC has become a big player here, too. And the WWE, which has always had offices in the state, recently announced plans for its own network next year, based here. The state’s film tax credit of up to 30 percent of expenses is becoming more attractive every day as creative types look for ways to escape the tyranny of living in Manhattan, or commuting there every day. The Gold Coast is indeed having its moment in the spotlight, and it should continue to be ready for its close-up as the area so close to Manhattan yet far enough for breathing space will become a big player for media companies, PR firms and ad agencies alike (it’s rumored that Time Warner is eyeing Connecticut). In a recent piece for the Fairfield County Public Relations Association, we noted that no fewer than 27 Fortune 1,000 companies are headquartered in Connecticut (as of 2009), but no major PR offices are domiciled there, let alone major ad agencies. Look for a bigger push to change the rules of the game in terms of job growth for the creative sector in 2012. With all things local taking hold, Fairfield County will continue to search for ways to bring businesses to the region and attract talent and residents to its local flavor.