The classic Jimmy Stewart movie, "It's a Wonderful Life," dramatically shows the contrast between a friendly, well-adjusted community and a horrifying "honky tonk" alternative that can happen if some conditions are changed or removed.
Our Housatonic Region, comprised of the 10 municipalities of Danbury, Newtown, Ridgefield, Brookfield, Bethel, New Milford, Redding, New Fairfield, Bridgewater and Sherman, has generally enjoyed that "wonderful life."
Consider that we are blessed with proximity to the world class city of New York, and the area has a high quality of life, complete with natural beauty, superior education levels and cultural activity, diversity of industry, and an adequate road and transportation system.
Even now, in the midst of a prolonged, slow recovery period, the Housatonic Valley Region has an unemployment rate in the 6 percent range -- far better than the state and the U.S.
That does not mean that we have dodged the bullet of the economic downturn -- there is still too much pain in the region.
The measure of employment is only one factor. It does not include underemployment, or slow growth in personal earnings, or erosion of wealth due to setbacks in asset values and security investments. Economies are fragile. They need constant attention and tweaking to maintain, let alone expand their vitality.
Recognizing this, about two years ago a group was formed with the immediate goal of developing a Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy.
This group took the name Western Connecticut Economic Development Alliance. Public sector membership is comprised of economic development or land use directors of most of the 10 municipalities, leadership of the Housatonic Valley Council of Elected Officials, and the dean of the Ancell School of Business at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury.
The private sector is represented by Northeast Utilities, Western Connecticut Health Network, Danbury Fair mall, Berkshire Corporate Park, Greater Danbury Chamber of Commerce, Housatonic Valley Cultural Alliance, and banking, architectural, union and commercial real estate interests.
All in all, the alliance has 21 members. (For a detailed membership and explanation of WCEDA activities visit www.HVCEO.org.
One of the first research projects that was undertaken under the auspices of Northeast Utilities was a series of four focus-group sessions, one with corporate executives, another with small business leaders, and sessions with cultural leaders, young professionals and college students.
While it is difficult to summarize the group comments here (full commentary can be accessed at the HVCEO site), the quality of life came through loud and clear: "As long as I can find a job and a home here, I would never go."
Quality of life sums up a variety of positives, including education, location, safety, activity and accessibility.
On the other hand, some groups saw the need for improvement in affordable housing, a need for a regional center, accessible transportation and cited a lack of nightlife (the latter two points mainly from the younger groups).
Among the business groups, the lack of a skilled manufacturing and trade workforce and the need for regionalization was noted.
Interestingly, none of the focus groups was able to identify a "brand" or common identity, and had to fall back on listing the region's positive attributes.
Focus groups, however, are anecdotal and are not quantifiable. That is the task of a much broader, more intense strategic study -- the CEDS.
The CEDS study is done by a professional consulting organization and takes a year or so to complete.
The alliance will fund the study, commission it, and follow through with the consultant project team until completion.
When finished, we will not put it on the shelf and forget about it. The plan will have to be implemented throughout the region with our guidance. We will produce a regional website and promotional materials to market the strategic strengths identified by CEDS.
Further, we will perform an outreach program to bring new business and investment into the region.
The cost of the CEDS is in six figures. The alliance received the hearty endorsement of the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development and a $60,000 grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration. HVCEO and the participating municipalities chipped in another $30,000, and we are in the process of raising matching funds from the private sector, which is at about 70 percent of goal.
The firm that will be awarded the contract for the CEDS study will be selected soon.
The scope of work will cover regional demographics, economy and labor force, housing resources, transportation, education, capacity for development and competitiveness, infrastructure resources, external trends and forces, vision for the future, implementation and accountability.
In addition, each municipality will be studied for individual strengths and weaknesses, and for how to maximize their contribution to the entire region.
The study will be updated periodically so it can adapt to changing conditions. It will not begin to impact the economic growth of the region until late 2013, but it will give us a road map for prosperity in the years ahead.
Like the community in "It's a Wonderful Life," this strategic effort will help to ensure that the region stays secure and prosperous in the years ahead.
Hal Kurfehs is chairman of the Western Connecticut Economic Development Alliance, vice president of the Brookfield Economic Development Commission, and is vice president of Coldwell Banker Commercial, Scalzo Group in Bethel.