As you may have heard, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has big plans for the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington. He wants the state to ante up $254 million in new bond money, part of an $854 million public/private enterprise to renovate research facilities, construct a new patient tower and ambulatory care center and kick-start a program to incubate fledgling bioscience companies, among other things.
Two things are instantly clear: It's a bold plan, and it's a lot of money.
On Thursday, legislators listened as university officials and the governor's emissaries pitched the project. Questions were polite and well reasoned, centering mostly on project costs, a seemingly breakneck approval process and the impact on other communities, most notably Hartford. The answers were persuasive, but were they persuasive enough? We'll soon know; Malloy wants his answer by the time the session ends on June 8.
We should pray the General Assembly says yes. The Malloy plan represents the wisest investment of public funds for economic development in the modern history of our state. That's a sweeping claim and I'll elaborate in a moment - but first, a personal qualification.
For years I have fought attempts to dump tax dollars into bloated projects that fly the flag of economic development. Best were the ones that never got off the ground; the Kraft stadium, Bridgeport casino and New Haven mall cost millions, but less than if they'd actually been built.
New London tore itself apart over development, only to be left at the altar by the intended beneficiary, the Pfizer Corp. Hartford thought it hit the jackpot 16 years ago when the state bestowed $1 billion on Adriaen's Landing. If it makes it to a 20th anniversary without even a dress shop or diner on Front Street, someone should apologize.
This long march of folly casts its shadow now on Malloy. The sad irony is that in every respect the process by which he arrived at his plan reflects high standards of professional governance - which is to say, the opposite of what we used to do.
Consider how the idea took shape. In sharp contrast to all the schemes hatched by politically connected real estate developers and casino operators, this proposal is the product of decades of professional analysis, regulatory review and legislative debate.
Opponents say Malloy goes too fast. It is true that if he can move his plan on his schedule he'll be known as the Chuck Yeager of public works piloting. But the essential elements have been reviewed by every conceivable body and reflect the best available thinking. Most of this plan has been before this legislature many times, only to be drowned each time in a gumbo of Capitol politics. This is the only part of the process Malloy's trying to foreshorten.
Much is at stake. This isn't just the shrewdest job plan on the table; it's close to the only one. Of course there's risk, but balanced against it is the knowledge that placing the health center on a sound footing will preserve jobs. And the plan responds to other challenges. My favorite part increases enrollment at the medical and dental schools by a third and offers financial assistance to students who choose careers in primary care and who commit to stay here in Connecticut. That's getting your money's worth.
One opponent calls the plan a bailout. In fact, the health center turned a profit last year and should break even this year. But if we don't act now, its small size and the makeup of its patient base will mean an eventual shortfall. That argues for action, not inaction, especially when we know that if we are bold, the health center can not only meet its obligations but be an economic engine for the region and our entire state.
What is ingenious in this plan is what's new in it. Unlike past plans, it doesn't just try to solve one institution's fiscal problems or even improve its quality. Malloy wants not just to redevelop the health center but to reorient and retool it. What he's trying to do in Farmington is a microcosm of what he knows he must do for an entire state: Help us to build from our known strengths, new strengths.
This isn't just another casino, or ballpark or convention center. This could be a future.
Bill Curry, former counselor to President Bill Clinton, was the Democratic nominee for governor twice.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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