State employee touts start-up businesses, loan assistance during stop in Meriden

MERIDON — State Department of Economic and Community Development Commissioner David Lehman touted new startups and a new fund for business owners and nonprofits during a visit to the city Friday.

Lehman addressed a crowd of about 75 people at a breakfast at Il Monticello hosted by the Midstate Chamber of Commerce. The presentation highlighted new business startups — a 40 percent increase over the past two years, adding about 20,000 people to the job market since the pandemic.

He also introduced the Small Business Boost Fund program, a $150 million initiative introduced by Gov. Ned Lamont in July. The fund, aimed at business owners and nonprofits, provides between $5,000 and $500,000 with no upfront fees, a fixed interest rate of 4.5 percent and repayment terms of 60 to 72 months, depending on the size of the loan.

Applicants receive support from community lenders and technical assistance, Lehman said. About 50 percent of the recipients will be women and minority-owned businesses.

Thomas Welsh, president of the Meriden Economic Development Corp., was quick to point out that the Boost Fund could be used in conjunction with the city’s $5 million commercial business matching program.

Last month, the City Council authorized the use of federal COVID-19 relief funds to create a program to encourage the reuse of vacant commercial buildings. The $5 million commercial space upgrade program will give vacant commercial space owners and business tenants the opportunity to bring buildings up to code or make other so-called “vanilla box” improvements. The program, which will be administered by the Meriden Economic Development Corp., will require co-financing from applicants. For spaces located in the city center, the match will be 25%.

“We want people to know they can use the state program funds in their city applications,” Welsh said.

Lehman’s presentation on the economy followed a Connecticut Association of Business and Industry survey released Friday that outlined several challenges.

The survey of 1,200 businesses found that 85 percent of employers are having difficulty finding and retaining workers and also showed that only 26 percent of businesses expect the state’s economy to expand over the next year.

Nearly a quarter — 24 percent — think tax cuts should be a top priority for the next governor and state legislature, while 22 percent say government spending and pension reform are the top issues.

Lehman addressed state initiatives to lower the cost of living, stimulate the expansion of housing options, retain and attract recent college graduates, expand career paths in manufacturing and trade, and develop a more competitive business climate.

Lamont, who is running for re-election, also made paying down the pension debt and building the rainy day fund priorities for his administration.

His opponent, Bob Stefanowski, unveiled a $640 million plan Tuesday that would aim to save businesses from paying hundreds of millions of dollars owed to the Connecticut Unemployment Trust.

Stefanowski’s plan would also expand research and development tax credits, strengthen relief for sole traders and some other small businesses, and repeal new taxes on restaurant food and large commercial trucks, according to The Connecticut Mirror.

“Connecticut ranks at the bottom of the states for doing business,” Stefanowski told The Mirror. “CNBC just gave Connecticut’s economy an ‘F’. Small business owners struggle with rampant inflation. … The governor is completely out of touch with the pain of the people.”

Lamont said Stefanowski’s plan weakens the government’s readiness to weather the next economic downturn.

[email protected]: @Cconnbiz

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