This Capital City Is Desperate for a Face-Lift
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because urban rebirth is better for us all.
By Matt Foley
It’s a sunny fall Friday afternoon as a group of stylish tech professionals stroll out of a sprawling office space — headed for happy hour at a new local brewery. Others hop on the express train to the city, while a gang of interns and students hustle to a campus shuttle that whisks them off to newly developed high-end housing in nearby downtown.
This might sound familiar to residents of Austin, Texas, or Silicon Valley, but in Connecticut — a state historically built on large-scale manufacturing and big finance — it’s a fantasy that’s just starting to take shape as a reality. Through a combination of private and public investment, several projects underway in Hartford have the potential to breathe new life into the state capital’s economy. As Connecticut battles a fiscal crisis, will revamped urban development provide fresh opportunities for middle-class residents and big businesses?
Hartford has determined that a new vision — one that will attract students and a young, talented workforce — is imperative.
“Connecticut is often referred to as the Land of Steady Habits,” says Jamie Brätt, the director of planning and economic development for the city of Hartford. “This [redevelopment] is a signal that things are changing.”
As Brätt alludes, Connecticut has a long history of doing a few things well. “America’s Country Club” actually has roots in blue-collar manufacturing, with an industrial base that dates back to 18th-century shipbuilding. By 1950, half of the state’s jobs were in manufacturing. As financial firms and corporations fled heavily taxed Northeast metros like New York and Boston, Connecticut capitalized, luring big business via tax incentives and suburban opportunity. But that trend is reversing. Despite being the country’s richest state per capita, Connecticut’s $2 billion budget deficit and current corporate exodus threaten the future of this wealthy enclave.
In early 2016, after nearly 40 years in Fairfield, Connecticut, General Electric left for Boston. And this summer, insurance giant Aetna abandoned Hartford for New York City. The loss of the $50 billion company, which had been in Hartford since 1853, was devastating. “[Connecticut] is far from the cheapest place to do business,” says Jim Conroy, managing partner of Stamford-based private equity firm Olympus Partners. “The financial sector has enjoyed great incentives, but now we’re seeing large corporations in other sectors seek greener pastures.”
Following the news of Aetna’s departure, Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin issued a statement calling for change. “As a state, we need to act boldly,” he wrote. “Companies are locating in places where they can recruit top talent. We don’t have to be New York or Boston to be competitive, but we have to recognize that strong, fiscally sound, culturally vibrant metropolitan areas are key to economic growth.” As such, Hartford has determined that a new vision — one that will attract students and a young, talented workforce — is imperative.
One of Hartford’s biggest redevelopment projects is Downtown North, simply known as DoNo. The L-shaped plot of previously barren land is now occupied by Dunkin’ Donuts Park, home of the Colorado Rockies’ minor league affiliate, the Hartford Yard Goats. But anticipation of a 16-acre neighborhood of apartments, offices, restaurants, shops and galleries surrounding the park is what really moves the needle. Hartford resident Matt Cunningham believes that DoNo could work wonders toward rebuilding Hartford. “The city has made some progress revitalizing downtown,” says Cunningham, noting a recent influx of restaurants, bars and shops in the city center. “Another vibrant neighborhood gives people even more reason to live here.”
And investors with an eye toward hip entrepreneurial enterprise are setting up shop too. Upward Hartford was founded last year as an “incubator and accelerator for startups focused on innovation and creativity,” says CEO and founder Shana Schlossberg, who is following the co-working model — private offices, conference rooms and common areas for socializing and networking — in hopes of building a thriving ecosystem of Hartford-based creatives in the city’s iconic Stilts Building. Since opening, the space has grown to accommodate other individuals and businesses outside the startup realm. The mission, the way Schlossberg sees it, is to “build a thriving business culture in Hartford … like New York, Silicon Valley or Tel Aviv.”
Another key growth area for the capital city is convincing college students — and recent grads — to return to the area. After an absence of 47 years, UConn has reopened a Hartford campus, leading to an increase of interest from the education sector to small business and individuals, says deputy director of development services for the city of Hartford, Kiley Gosselin. UConn already plays basketball and hockey at the local XL Center, but the daily presence of thousands of students is paramount to eventually filling vacant manufacturing warehouses in Hartford with new businesses. “Over the past year and a half, we’ve seen a number of businesses relocating to, expanding and starting up in Hartford,” Gosselin tells OZY. “And we continue to see that progress with transportation expansion.”
As in the Hartford Line, aiming to launch May 2018. The rail project will connect Hartford with Springfield, Massachusetts, and New Haven, with its existing links to New York City. The $623 million project includes $432.2 million in state funds and $190.9 million from the federal government. As Gov. Dannel Malloy noted when announcing the new infrastructure initiative, “towns with new stations aim to use them as a catalyst for development.”
But that progress hinges on these projects moving forward. The massive DoNo project, which broke ground in 2015, has stalled due to litigation with the original construction company. Hartford officially severed ties with it on Oct. 2, and the city has yet to find a new developer.
Connecticut’s identity is in flux. Known for a few wealthy coastal towns that have all the fun(ds), the rest of the state has fallen behind, full of empty warehouses and little-used railroads. But an enhanced capital may lead to sustainable progress elsewhere. Whether you’re an app developer or brewmaster or anything in between, Hartford wants you. And don’t forget your glove if the Goats are in town.