State Senator-Elect Will Haskell, far right, listens to Peg Koellmer, owner of Realty Seven in Wilton (seated near column) as several of her colleagues look on.

There’s no question about it, State Senator-Elect Will Haskell is a good public speaker. He’s at his best talking to a smaller group of people, when they can get closer to his energy and enthusiasm for governance. It’s fascinating to watch him speak to a group of people who are skeptical about what happens in Hartford–and witness how he wins them over, enough to have them walk away feeling more hopeful and impressed with his knowledge and command of data and facts.

That’s what happened Wednesday morning, inside the cozy offices of Realty Seven. Owner Peg Koellmer had invited a handful of fellow Wilton realtors and community leaders for a more personal meeting with Haskell. They were there to tell him their concerns about how shaky the real estate market is year after year, and feeling like they’re on the front lines of some of the largest problems facing the state–negative population growth; the difficulty in attracting new, younger residents to live here; and the dismal prospects for residents on the opposite side of the age spectrum who want to sell their homes and downsize.

One person in the group phrased it very well, explaining her lack of trust for Hartford politicians, and feeling like realtors don’t having a voice in the capital.

“A report from the [CT Office of Policy and Management] OPM showed there was 0.8% growth in the CT real estate market from 2010-2018. The national average is over 45%. Surrounding states around us have had exorbitant growth compared to, not the 45% but certainly higher than less than 1%, which is a huge issue… The lack of growth in the market is keeping people significantly underwater. Real estate drives the economy and with the real estate market faltering, the market is having issues. And now you guys [in Hartford], last year they brought up the Sellers’ Conveyance Tax, the Buyers’ Conveyance Tax, and then the tax on second homes. Then the realtors have taken a hit this year with supporting [failed gubernatorial candidate] Bob Stefanowski. Some people say we’re not welcome to the table which would be unfortunate because real estate drives the economy, so realtors not having a seat at the table would be an issue.”

Haskell framed a most of the issues in relation to the realtors. One of the biggest issues is how to attract younger residents–potential home buyers–to grow the workforce and keep businesses in the state. Haskell campaigned on the idea that his youth was an advantage–that he could better understand the needs and thought processes of younger voters from his inside vantage point. But now, he’s driving home just how policy changes can be key to attracting that generation and bolstering the state economy–especially as a factor related to his realtor audience.

 “I grew up in Westport, I went to Staples High School, and I don’t have a single friend from high school who’s back in Connecticut. Nobody’s choosing between Brooklyn and Bridgeport. But, we’ve got to reverse that trend.”                 –– Will Haskell, Wilton’s State Senator-Elect

Haskell told the group that CT has the highest student loan debt in the country–an average of $34,000 per student–so he’s optimistic that if the state can help younger residents afford to begin their careers here, it will incentivize them to stay here long term.

“In most states, if you graduate from one of their colleges or universities and you decide to stay there for a period of years, you’ll get a break on your student loans. What we need to do in Connecticut is say, ‘If you’re a Connecticut resident and you graduate from one of our amazing colleges and universities and you stay here for seven years, you become a Connecticut tax payer, you decide to start your small business, your corporate career, your family in Connecticut, then we’ll give you a small break on your student loans.’ Because once you’re here for seven years, I think you’re gonna stick around for a lot longer.”

But how does CT pay for such a program? Haskell says, “I’m working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to figure out how we can find a revenue-neutral way to create a student loan forgiveness program.”

Haskell told an anecdote to illustrate his main point–as he put it, “…in order to attract the next generation of businesses to Connecticut, we need to attract the next generation of workers.”

“I called up the head of GE’s legislative relations and I said, ‘Why did you leave and go to Massachusetts?’ They said transportation was part of it. The trains have gotten slower since 1950, not faster, for the busiest commuter network in the entire country and there’s still no wifi on Metro North, there are 308 structurally deficient bridges, so it’s hard to get people to and from work. They said taxes were a small part as well, but people generally don’t go to Massachusetts to avoid taxes. The biggest thing, he said, was that Connecticut couldn’t provide, these were his words, ‘A young, diverse, tech-savvy workforce.’ That is a huge shortcoming of our state,” he recounted.

He put it in personal terms:  “I grew up in Westport, I went to Staples High School, and I don’t have a single friend from high school who’s back in Connecticut. Nobody’s choosing between Brooklyn and Bridgeport. But, we’ve got to reverse that trend.”

Haskell says he’s looking for creative ways to approach generating revenues to offset the state’s enormous debt, especially when it comes to the responsibility of fulfilling the unfunded pension liabilities. “We have to stop kicking the can down the road. As somebody who’s a stakeholder in Connecticut’s future, I’m going to oppose any legislation that would just delay paying this debt another five, 10, 15 years, because that’s what got us into this mess. We’re still paying for yesterday’s mistakes.”

He points to something called the Legacy Obligation Trust Model, which uses government assets (e.g. land, buildings, infrastructure) in a privately managed trust to help generate revenue. “If we send the profits made off of those assets directly into the pension fund, it could address our legacy obligations over the next decade. It’s not, by any means, a silver bullet, but it gets us moving in the right direction,” says Haskell.

Of course, another revenue generator Haskell has long supported is the introduction of tolls on CT highways. Knowing this is an issue that small businesses and local commuters are afraid of, he explained how it could be better implemented with methods like commuter discounts, lower rates for CT residents, tax rebates for small businesses and low income residents, and more.

“If you are passing under a toll and it’s within a 10-mile radius of where your E-ZPass is registered, you don’t have to pay that toll. Say you’re a Westport resident who hops on 95 only to go to a Stop & Shop in Norwalk, you shouldn’t have to pay the toll that [hypothetically] might be located at exit 17, right? If you’re using 95 or the Merritt as a local road, you shouldn’t have to pay those tolls. With high tech tolling, you’re able to do all these things.”

Again, Haskell framed it in relation to the realtors and their concerns about transportation woes being a deterrent to attracting new residents.

“Connecticut drivers, in fact, paid six million dollars in tolls to Massachusetts last year. Massachusetts paid not a cent to Connecticut. Do you wonder why our trains have gotten slower since 1950? Do you wonder why we have 308 structurally deficient bridges? It’s because we are not raising the money that’s so desperately needed to improve our infrastructure,” he said.

Koellmer, who sits on the executive board of the Connecticut Board of Realtors, reminded Haskell of that the 17,000 members of that board want their voices heard, especially by Haskell and his fellow eager freshman state senators.

“We’re the largest group in Connecticut; we’re the largest group in the country,” she said. “I think it would be worthwhile to get that group together. Frankly they would like to have you recognize them, because [Hartford is] where we meet. So, you know, the seven new state senators?”

When Haskell immediately answered, “We’ll do that,” that seemed to assuage Koellmer. “Okay. Good.”

Several community leaders joined Wilton realtors to meet Will Haskell, including Wilton Library executive director Elaine Tai-Lauria (center), Steve Hudspeth and Police Chief John Lynch (center background).

After the talk finished, Koellmer expressed her approval. “I thought he did a great job and a wonderful presentation. Very knowledgeable and a very positive attitude, very open. The fact of the matter is he’s our senator. It doesn’t matter whether you voted for him or not. He’s our senator, and he seems really engaged. We have to jump on board.”

Mark Gilrain, a realtor with Halstead Real Estate, and director the Mid-Fairfield County Association of Realtors, said he had been skeptical of someone so young during the campaign, but hearing Haskell speak to the group, he too was impressed.

“He spoke to a range of issues and news, facts, and figures, and was very fluid. I thought it was very encouraging. There are some interesting things that people don’t think about that we could start talking about with somebody like Will, who is probably broadly an intellectual and interested in lots of different things and isn’t married to the way things have been. I’m excited about that,” Gilrain said.

For some, however, they want to make sure Haskell walks the walk, as well as he talks the talk. Realty Seven realtor Pat Russo said he found Haskell “refreshing,” but he’ll be watching how the young state senator does once he’s sworn in on Jan. 9.

“It’s all about action. We can talk all we want, but it’s all about action. We have to because our own industry is suffering.”