City Focus: Greater Hartford

 

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It hasn’t been an easy decade or so for Greater Hartford, but not for a lack of effort. Now, with economic engines like UConn Health Center, Bradley International and ESPN firing up, the decade to come looks very promising.

Could it be that things are finally beginning to add up for Greater Hartford?

Let’s begin with the UConn Health Center expansion plan unveiled by Gov. Dannel Malloy in May. The $900 million project proposed for the center’s campus in Farmington (and subject to legislative approval) would, he said, create an estimated 16,400 “high-quality” jobs as well as about 3,000 construction jobs each year between 2012 and 2018. It also would increase capacity for 100 more students at UConn’s medical school and 48 more at its dental school.

“In some sense we are creating our own Research Triangle in our little state of Connecticut,” Malloy said in announcing the project, which also includes a new outpatient care center and the replacement of a patient tower, steps many say are long overdue for the 36-year-old health center.

That proposal comes on the heels of another major regional project, which Malloy authorized—the go-ahead for Connecticut’s first rapid-transit busway. It will link New Britain and the towns west of Hartford to downtown. Further, within five years it’s entirely likely that Hartford will get hourly train service to New York without the need to change in New Haven; quite possibly, the same hourly service will be offered to Boston via Springfield, both moves that carry huge psychological and economic implications for a city and region that has long felt like a backwater.

But not everything is spun out of taxpayer gold. Other signs of renewed job growth are surfacing across Greater Hartford.

Bristol-based ESPN is consolidating parts of its workforce from New York, a move that means the sports entertainment company will soon employ 4,100 in Bristol. And a number of construction projects are moving along on the sports giant’s 116-acre campus, including the renovation of one building to accommodate its publishing and magazine group, also moving from Manhattan. Indeed in the past decade, the Bristol campus has more than tripled its size to over 1.2 million square feet.

East of the Connecticut River, jet engine maker Pratt & Whitney, based in East Hartford, won a $1.13 billion Pentagon contract to supply engines and spare parts for the F-35 Lightning II war planes, a deal that the company says will support more than 4,000 Connecticut jobs, though assembly of its version known as the F-135 will occur in Middletown.

Big projects all, but they come with a warning buzzer. With a population of more than 1 million, Greater Hartford has too often over the last half-century witnessed the announcements of significant undertakings promising to turn around a city and region buffeted by the exodus of good-paying manufacturing jobs and the downsizing of its insurance industry, traditionally the region’s key economic drivers.

The last great project, the so-called Six Pillars of economic development, also promised major change, primarily to downtown Hartford rather than the region. State lawmakers, under then Gov. John Rowland, pumped nearly $1 billion in state funds into Hartford to entice private developers to invest in a series of projects intended to turn it into a vibrant 24-hour city. A gleaming convention center, high-rise Marriott hotel and state-of-the-art science center, all fronting the Connecticut River, were built. More than 1,000 new or renovated market-rate apartments were also developed downtown. Even a new football stadium for UConn was constructed across the river in East Hartford.

Despite those investments, on many nights and especially on weekends downtown is still not quite hopping. (An exception is any night the UConn Huskies men’s or women’s basketball teams play at the XL Center.) A new retail square called Front Street across from the Connecticut Convention Center was finally completed earlier this year, but it remains unoccupied because of the recession and because downtown still lacks a critical mass of either residents or visitors to make it viable.

Yet even here signs abound that a few right moves, some already funded and in the works, with others in the planning stage, could actually create a region that’s fundamentally improved and more tempting to business and residential interests. Much of that work is focused on downtown Hartford.

“Right now there’s a sense we can get stuff done,” says David Panagore, Hartford’s chief operating officer. For the past year city officials have been involved in a process called One City, One Plan to plot future development. Unlike past studies, this one includes community forums or “listening sessions.” That’s normally a perfunctory process that leads nowhere, and in a city that’s lost most of its middle class, few residents would be expected to turn out. But over the past year, more than 1,000 residents participated, “a sign of engagement and pride,” Panagore believes.

City Focus: Greater Hartford

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