Small-business owners came up with weaknesses more readily than strengths when discussing the Connecticut business environment during a focus group hosted by the Western Connecticut Council of Governments on Tuesday.

WestCOG serves 18 area communities, including Bridgewater, New Milford and Sherman.

Access to capital, health insurance costs, regulations and liability insurance were among the barriers to business growth listed by those in attendance at the Greater Danbury Chamber of Commerce office. Strengths included proximity to New York City, high quality of life, a diverse population and organizations such as the Small Business Administration and Department of Economic and Community Development.

“It costs me more in health care than it does to hire a new employee now,” said Bruce Treidel, of Bethel Music Center. “Thirty years ago, I didn’t charge my employees for health care. I just paid for it. Now I can’t do it. It’s unaffordable.”

Using information gleaned from focus groups and a survey distributed earlier this year to business owners, WestCOG will develop a Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy for the region. The plan will help facilitate economic development in the region for the next five years.

Panelists Hal Kurfehs, of CBC-Scalzo Group; Lisa Scails, of the Cultural Alliance of Western Connecticut; and Liz Esposito, of WestCOG, asked the group for suggestions on what the state can do differently to help grow businesses.

“Access to capital has been difficult, and the money I can get is very expensive money,” said Michael Sauvageau, co-owner of Noteworthy Chocolates. “I’m a new business, so I don’t have the money or collateral that banks want to see.”

Treidel said he has lost potentially large contracts outside of Connecticut because several states offer preferential treatment to in-state companies. Connecticut does not offer its businesses the same consideration and often accepts the lowest bid, regardless of the company’s location, he said.

Treidel proposed Connecticut offer a 5 percent grace window to in-state companies when considering bids, regardless of industry. The state would benefit from taxes and employment numbers, he said.

Chuck Woerner, a business finance specialist at Fairfield County Bank, said Connecticut used to have a competitive advantage over nearby states, which has disappeared. “It’s a rapidly changing world,” he said. “Things that were true 20 years ago aren’t true anymore.”

Woerner suggested cities and towns in the state adopt a more “homogeneous permitting” structure so builders, architects and other professionals do not have to learn each town’s system before starting a project.

“I have builders that won’t even do business in certain towns,” he said. “Government tends to grow and sometimes it grows to the detriment of business.”

Information from the focus groups and survey offer WestCOG officials a “snapshot of current business conditions so we can evaluate our strengths and weaknesses,” Esposito said.

There are three focus groups remaining: on Tuesday in Stamford to discuss financial technology; March 22 in Wilton to discuss health care tech; and March 23 in Wilton to discuss the creative economy.

cbosak@hearstmedia

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