Published March 13. 2013 4:00AM Updated March 13. 2013 8:51PM
Hartford - A bill aimed at preventing a "brain drain" in southeastern Connecticut drew strong support Tuesday from a contingent of local scientists, politicians and business people, but opposition from the commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community Development could doom the legislation if it reaches the House floor.
Commissioner Catherine Smith did not appear Tuesday at the four-hour public hearing by the General Assembly's Commerce Committee, but part of her testimony was read during the meeting. She urged the committee to reject the bill, which was supported by the entire southeastern Connecticut delegation, saying it could dilute support for an initiative by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy to invest $200 million over the next decade to spur bioscience companies throughout the state. (Editor's note: This corrects the amount reported in an earlier version.)
"It is my fear that (the bill) will only fracture a worthy piece of legislation before it has a chance to be implemented," Smith said in written testimony.
The bill would require DECD to develop a plan to aid emerging biotech and pharmaceutical firms in the region after a series of downsizings at Pfizer Inc. Proponents said they see the legislation as a complement to Malloy's initiative, bringing attention to an area of the state that long has been ignored by the agency.
"I believe it will help stop the brain drain that is going on in my community," said Jean Schaefer of Niantic, a former Pfizer scientist who organized an entrepreneurial network in the region.
"Southeastern Connecticut just has tremendous assets, whether it's physical or mental," added state Sen. Andrea Stillman, D-Waterford.
While some of Malloy's proposals will require that the state build facilities and programs largely from scratch, state Rep. Betsy Ritter, D-Waterford, said, southeastern Connecticut already has empty buildings at Pfizer and a trained workforce in place, ready to go.
"I truly feel we have an opportunity in southeastern Connecticut to capitalize on the assets (already here)," she said.
"We need the plan, and we need to do this quickly," added City of Groton Mayor Marian Galbraith.
Tuesday's hearing comes on the heels of the revelation by Malloy during an interview with The Day Monday that the state is working on a deal that would involve the University of Connecticut at Avery Point using space on the Pfizer campus off Eastern Point Road in Groton. That is the company's largest research-and-development presence worldwide.
Galbraith added during the hearing that the state also is negotiating with a major developer who would re-purpose more than 700,000 square feet of space at Pfizer's Building 118, the company's former R&D headquarters, which has been threatened with demolition if the pharmaceutical giant can't find a buyer.
While southeastern Connecticut has a plethora of talent and plenty of physical space to house bioscience companies, what it lacks is any sort of infrastructure that connects scientists to a community of bioscience professionals, said Nancy Motola of Waterford, who owns a consulting firm and is an officer with New Haven Pharmaceuticals.
"I really think attention needs to be paid to southeastern Connecticut?to create an infrastructure that can interact with other parts of the state," she said.
Betsy Stevenson of Stonington, founder of Raymond Stevenson Healthcare Communications, said southeastern Connecticut is home to a large number of scientists who shepherded major medicines from early stages through approval by U.S. and European regulatory authorities. But many are now being forced to look for work elsewhere, she said.
Jim O'Malley of Waterford, founder of the New London biotech firm Myometrics LLC, recounted his struggles with the lack of responsiveness of state agencies, including DECD and Connecticut Innovations, saying he was on the verge of leaving the state before finally winning $100,000 in funding through the Small Business Express program.
He told legislators that Malloy's First Five program - intended to spur job growth statewide - should be used to funnel money to the SouthEastern Connecticut Enterprise Region development agency as a way of boosting an area of the state that consistently has lagged behind in economic growth.
"Ten million dollars could keep 100 companies here," O'Malley said.
Legislators from other parts of the state initially were skeptical about singling out southeastern Connecticut for special consideration. But after hearing testimony about scientists having to move out of state to find work and about the lack of responsiveness of state agencies to the region's needs, some of them changed their tunes.
"Administrative neglect is very concerning to this committee," state Sen. Ed Meyer, D-Guilford, said.
"We're going to make sure you're on the state's radar," added state Rep. Chris Perone, D-Norwalk, co-chairman of the committee.
The bill is expected to be referred to the House floor by legislative leaders Thursday, but lawmakers said privately that the DECD's opposition - plus the possible large price tag for a major study - could lead to tough sledding during a legislative session in which budget belt-tightening is a priority.