City Focus: Greater Hartford
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Further, says Panagore, Hartford’s chief operating officer, when those in their 20s and 30s start getting married and thinking about having kids, Greater Hartford starts to look attractive. Housing prices, for example, are affordable relative to New York and Boston real estate. The median price of homes sold in Greater Hartford was $220,000 in April, while the median condo price was $154,000, largely because of ballooning inventory, according to the Greater Hartford Association of Realtors. Also, Panagore says, besides being equidistant from New York and Boston, Greater Hartford has one overlooked, undersold asset: how close residents in the region are to the countryside—they can get there in as little as 10 to 20 minutes.
That’s not to say there aren’t major challenges. Hartford’s crime rate is high and its schools remain troubled. Still, retiring Schools Superintendent Steven Adamowski‘s reform efforts have received high marks in a report from the Seattle-based Center on Reinventing Public Education. That was largely based on the progress Adamowski made on school choice and on overhauling—or in some cases closing—failing schools. As a result, the high school graduate rate has reached 50 percent, up from 29 percent in 2006.
In the region, meanwhile, the economy remains fragile, though numerous signs of growth can be seen. One of the biggest success stories is in West Hartford, where it’s not uncommon to hear people say West Hartford Center has become Hartford’s new downtown. Even during the recession, restaurants were packed on weekend nights. Blue Back Square, the mixed-use lifestyle center developed on the east side of the center, is nearly full. All 62 condos are sold and the 48 apartments are fully occupied, says Robert Wienner, president of Blue Back Square Development Co., one of the project developers. In addition, its two Class A office buildings are 90 percent leased and its retail shops, the sector hardest hit in the recession, is 90 percent occupied.
“Everyone is improving year over year. We still love what we have,” says Wienner, who notes the sidewalks also remain busy.
A few miles away, Westfarms in Farmington remains a retail magnet for much of north-central Connecticut. “We have been very fortunate to have the opportunity to bring many great new-to-the-market retailers to Westfarms recently, with over 30 new leases signed between 2007 and 2010,” says Kevin Keenan, Westfarms’ general manager. Recent new stores opening include True Religion Brand Jeans and Free People, with Anthropologie and Urban Outfitters to follow later this year. Keenan says that both traffic and sales are up so far this year at Westfarms.
This comes as no surprise to Steve Lanza, editor of The Connecticut Economy, a quarterly journal, who says Greater Hartford’s economy is projected to show relatively good growth compared to other regions in the state. “Housing prices are expected to remain stable, [and] unemployment rates are flattening out if not dipping down,” he says. Of course, he adds, that’s all predicated on a fairly robust U.S. performance.
Meanwhile, business organizations including the regional chamber of commerce, the Metro Hartford Alliance, continue to help build economic engines. One focus is on “Eds and Meds,” health-care and education services. Hartford Hospital has opened a 40,000-square-foot Center for Education, Simulation and Innovation, the state’s first fully computerized simulation center.
Across town, Saint Francis Hospital opened the 318,000-square-foot John T. O’Connell Tower, which houses the Connecticut Joint Replacement Institute, the largest joint-replacement center in the state. And last fall Saint Joseph College in West Hartford opened a new School of Pharmacy in the XL Center downtown.
“The idea is to cluster what we have in unique health-care-related research and work,” says Sandra Johnson, Metro Hartford Alliance’s vice president of economic development.
Meanwhile, the Metro Hartford Alliance remains focused as well on trying to do more in the towns surrounding Bradley International Airport to the north. State legislation last year created a new airport development zone, identifying the airport as an underleveraged asset. In an even more significant move, the state legislature this spring created a new quasi-public authority to operate Bradley and the state’s five other smaller aiports. The bipartisan vote will allow the authority to hire staff, enter into contracts, issue bonds and otherwise have the power, if all goes well, to turn the airports into economic magnets.
Finally, this summer and next year also promise to be periods of change for the Hartford arts community. The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art reopened its Morgan Great Hall in May as part of a comprehensive renovation to increase gallery space by 14 percent. The entire renovation is slated for completion in 2013. The Hartford Symphony earlier this year reached a new labor agreement with its musicians’ unions, and Carolyn Kuan, a new music director, arrives next season. She succeeds Edward Cummings, and at 33 becomes the first woman in the orchestra’s 68-year history. (A native of Taiwan, she came through Bradley at 14 to study in Massachusetts.) Also, after 12 years J. Michael Wilson concludes his final season as artistic director at the Hartford Stage, with Darko Tresnjak announced to succeed him. All of which holds the promise of new cultural paths being blazed.
“When a wave begins to crest,” Pangore says, “you have to be right at the top of it.” Greater Hartford, he says, finds itself in that position right now, as it prepares to ride the new crest into the future.