Discussion and debate at this year’s Economic Development Conference, hosted by the Yale School of Management, focused on the challenges and opportunities for New Haven’s growing economy.

The conference, which took place last Friday, brought together leading experts to discuss possible solutions to the Elm City’s financial problems — including poverty, housing and attracting business — in a panel setting. The panel analyzed the best means of continuing what they said is the beginning of the city’s economic revival.

Regional Growth Partnership President Robert Santy said that while most people think economic development means bringing new industrial companies to town, he defines it more generally as any generator of jobs and investment that leads to wealth creation within a community. Santy’s presentation focused on the analysis of economic trends within the city as they relate to larger statewide trends.

“Our towns are so small that economic trends transcend the bounds of an 18-square-mile city like New Haven,” Santy said. “Looking at issues within a regional context allows us to see those macro trends.”

Santy said the number of businesses in New Haven County has fallen since 1989, making it the only county in the state of Connecticut to post a net loss of businesses during that time.

Michael Morand, Yale’s assistant vice president for New Haven and State Affairs, stressed the need to continue making New Haven hospitable to merchants and small businesses in his presentation.

“The fact of the matter is that in New Haven, free enterprise isn’t so free,” Morand said. “It’s important to remember that it is still significantly more expensive to do business in Connecticut, and that capital will generally go where it is wanted and stay where it is well treated.”

Panelist and real-estate developer Andrea Pizziconi ’01 also said her experience has shown that small business owners are often willing to contribute capital and take entrepreneurial risks long before anyone else will.

“When you’ve got an emerging economy, the merchants will be the pioneers,” Pizziconi said.

New Haven Economic Development Administrator Kelly Murphy said she has seen a lot of economic potential as a newcomer to the city, but she thinks this potential must be advertised if the city wants to attract the best kind of business it can.

“New Haven right now is really on the cusp of something terrific,” Murphy said. “This is a place that really wants to do business, and we need to get that message out.”

Some panelists discussed New Haven’s need to diversify the cost of housing in order to attract a broader spectrum of individuals to the city.

“It’s critical to have a wide variety of housing options,” Pizziconi said. “Part of what will help New Haven is to bring empty nesters from the shoreline downtown closer to where they work.”

But some panelists said affordable housing itself still remains a problem. Santy said the price of houses across the state of Connecticut has risen by approximately 50 percent during the past five years, while income has only increased by about 12 percent, making it more difficult for families to purchase new homes.

Santy said that while Connecticut has not coordinated its resources for economic development very well, the region has several options at its disposal.

“Increasing public investment to encourage private investment in urban centers, lessening dependency on the property tax, broadening diversity of available housing, and pursuing transit-oriented development and other smart growth principles would all serve to strengthen New Haven’s economy,” Santy said.

Regardless of the politics involved in economic planning, Murphy said area residents have much to look forward to.

“People are very excited about the Coliseum coming down and new housing and retail arriving,” Murphy said. “These next few years will be critical.”

Some student attendees said they appreciated the panel’s diversity of opinions.

“Getting such a broad overview was great,” Ola Sawyerr SOM ’07 said. “I think New Haven is coming to a point where it will be recognized for more than just Yale.”

Farrah Fogarty SOM ’07 also said she thought the panel served to raise the Yale community’s awareness of local economic development issues. The discussions encouraged her to pursue a career that would aid the development process, she said.

“What came across to me in the presentation was how unique New Haven’s situation is from other cities across the country,” Fogarty said. “It made me think I’d like to eventually look for job opportunities within New Haven, especially in real estate and retail.”

Sawyerr, who said she hopes to return to Nigeria after graduation and work in economic development there, said she thinks many New Haven policies may also have broader implications.

“I think [development policies] need to be customized for a society,” Sawyerr said. “Viewed that way, I can see New Haven being a model for economic development all over the world.”