BRIDGEPORT – With more than 7,000 employees between them, Bridgeport’s hospitals and institutions of higher education pump millions of dollars in payroll alone into the local economy.
But officials agree that these employers also serve a major role in building up an urban community’s image and attracting investment.
At each new employee orientation session, Bridgeport Hospital President and CEO Bill Jennings said he makes it a point to address not just the hospital’s teaching, research and patient-centered missions, but also its responsibility to serve the needs of the greater community.
“We are the city’s largest employer, if not tied for first, and that triggers a civic duty,” Jennings said. “It puts an additional level of responsibility on us.”
Jennings said there are numerous ways to carry out that civic duty, from educational efforts like hosting health fairs to major investments in its facilities.
There’s also the hospital’s $200 million payroll for its 2,700 employees, which Jennings estimates generates another $200 million in trickle-down spending. The hospital has also been donating its residential properties to Bridgeport Neighborhood Trust, a developer of affordable housing in the city, and has supported the city’s efforts to build a second train station nearby, which it says would serve its employees.
“The hospitals are engines in the region,” Jennings said.
The state’s largest city has two hospitals, Bridgeport Hospital and St. Vincent’s Medical Center, with both institutions employing thousands of area and city residents. The city also has major educational institutions within city limits and on its border – the University of Bridgeport, Housatonic Community College and Sacred Heart University.
Each of these anchor institutions has over the last several years expanded its campus and added facilities. St. Vincent’s several years ago spent $50 million on its Elizabeth Pfriem SWIM Center for Cancer Care, while Bridgeport Hospital has spent millions on continuing improvements to its Grant Street property and nearly $100 million on the Park Avenue Medical Center, an outpatient facility that opened on the Bridgeport/Trumbull border last year.
UB, meanwhile, has invested $90 million on its campus, including construction of a new residential hall off University Avenue, and HCC is completing its nearly $40 million expansion on Lafayette Boulevard now. Sacred Heart University, which is largely in Fairfield, has also invested heavily in its campus over the years, including a new Center for Health Care Education over the border in Bridgeport.
Collectively the institutions are seen, just as Yale University and Yale New Haven Hospital are to New Haven, as major economic development drivers and assets for the city.
“We have to take advantage of the great resources that exist in Bridgeport,” said Frank Borres, head of the Bridgeport Chamber of Commerce. “It gives us something that other areas don’t have so we have to play up those resources.”
Mayor Joe Ganim has been credited with improving relations with UB, which was mostly ignored by his predecessor Bill Finch. Ganim recruited UB President Neil Salonen, who is retiring next year, to help lead his transition team in 2015.
Ganim, who also teaches a government course at UB, said he appreciates the impact the hospitals and educational centers have on the city’s image, its workforce and the overall community.
“They’re good employers and good corporate citizens,” he said. “These are all positive beacons we probably don’t laud enough.”
A study conducted by the Connecticut Independent College and University Institute for Research and Public Service found UB’s economic impact exceeded $435 million in 2016, including nearly $260 million in direct spending by the university, its employees, students and visitors.
Robert Cottle, UB’s vice president of university relations, said the university’s growth over the last several decades, which includes a rising endowment and increasing student enrollment, a large percentage of which is international, means it has a lot to offer the city.
“I think here at UB one thing that is exciting is that we’re at a 30-year high in enrollment and financial stability,” Cottle said, noting that healthy educational institutions are as essential to a city as successful corporations. “All of these things are interconnected, and as one grows, they can only help each other.”
As a major employer with roughly 500 employees in the city’s South End, Cottle said the university tries to stay engaged with other key stakeholders, including developers interested in properties nearby.
Ganim said the university is also a major partner in a resiliency grant awarded to the city to make infrastructure improvements in the South End.
Just as UB is a major asset in its neighborhood, Ganim said HCC serves the same purpose downtown. He cited the community college’s move to its current downtown location during his first tenure in office in the 1990s as a major catalyst for the revitalization of the downtown, along with the relocation of the state police headquarters a block away on Prospect Street around the same time.
“That was the start of the reverse of what had been the collapse of the downtown,” Ganim said.
He noted the community college has been a great partner for businesses in the city and region to ensure its students attain the skills needed to serve their needs. Its advanced manufacturing program has a 100 percent placement rate for its students.
“Institutions of higher education serve a critical role in the city and must ensure that they are a vital part of the fabric of the city,” said HCC President Paul Broadie. “At Housatonic Community College we have placed a focus on ensuring that we understand the needs of the city, and are responsive to those needs. This is evidenced in our relationships with the many community organizations we partner with, our connections with the Bridgeport educational system and collaborations with city government.”
Cottle noted, however, that just as the city’s anchor institutions can help make the city more attractive, the city’s evolution and revitalization can also help them thrive.
“Certainly as the reputation continues to evolve and be enhanced, it helps us, too,” Cottle said.