Hartford Is Raising Its Profile With New Business, Tourism and Civic Engagement
by Kate Hartman
The first time Iris Slotkin and her husband ventured to Hartford was in 1964, in a snowstorm. The New York couple traveled through the snow, ready to explore the state’s capital. When they finally arrived, they were shocked by the utter lack of life on the streets.
“We said, ‘There’s nothing here.’ Everything was closed. What kind of a city closes down?” she asked. Nearly 50 years later, and now a resident of nearby Middletown, Slotkin still visits Hartford, but only to see the Wadsworth Atheneum, where she’s a member. “It’s a gem,” she says.
Hartford is known as the “insurance capital of the world,” and between the insurance companies and state government offices, thousands of people work there every day. And swiftly exit by 5 p.m.
Actress Kathleen Turner noticed this when she starred in High at Hartford's TheaterWorks in 2011. Speaking in 2012 with Connecticut Magazine she said, “Yeah, we started the workshop … in downtown Hartford—which I’ve got to say, I mean, forgive me, Connecticut, but that place is just deserted. There are two or three apartment buildings, and on the weekend everything closes. There’s no grocery store anywhere near; there’s no bookstore. You’d do a show on Sunday and go, ‘Where is everybody? Was there a nuclear holocaust?’ Awful, man. So many cities are reviving their downtowns; we know it can be done. That's really what I know about Connecticut.”
A bad impression, for sure, and she isn’t alone. Isabel Guy, who has been living in Middletown for more than 20 years, says a trip with English relatives ended in a bust because of shops and businesses closing early. “I brought family from England here and we were walking around after 6 p.m. and we wondered, ‘What do we do now?’ she recalls. “They were asking, ‘This is really the capital of the state?’ We kept walking, thinking we would find something, but we never did. I was embarrassed.”
Guy says there’s more life on the streets of Middletown after dark than there is in Hartford, though Middletown’s population is about 48,000 to Hartford’s estimated 125,000.
Hartford’s tourism industry centers on a few big attractions, including the Wadsworth Atheneum, the Mark Twain House, the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center and Bushnell Park, which are touted whenever someone asks. There are events at the XL Center, newer attractions such as the Connecticut Science Center, and a steady convention business. But the perception of people who choose to avoid Hartford altogether harms those venues, and the visitors they do attract often find “the rest of the city” lacking.
No Football, But More People
In 2000, the master plan for Adriaen’s Landing, an ambitious large-scale, mixed-use economic development along the Connecticut River was approved in hopes that it would help revitalize the city. Initial plans included a new football stadium to lure the New England Patriots away from Massachusetts. That proposal was scuttled in 1999 when the team struck a deal to expand its existing stadium in Foxborough. In the last decade, individual parts of the project have been completed: Riverwalk Downtown in 2003; the Connecticut Convention Center in 2005; the Marriott Hotel and XL Center, both in 2006; and The Connecticut Science Center in 2009. But there’s still much to be done.
While Phase One of the Front Street District has been completed, with two buildings for commercial uses, predominantly restaurant and event venues finished in 2010, Phase Two, which is expected to include retail and mixed-use housing, continues. At this point, there are 11 housing projects in some form of the development process. Some of these projects are within the geographic area of Adriaen’s Landing, while others reach out into other regions of downtown Harford. They are a mix of new construction and redevelopment of existing buildings.
Mike Freimuth, executive director of the Capital Region Development Authority, says the state has pledged $60 million to support housing developments downtown. About half has been spent so far. CRDA has leveraged other funds as well, which brings the total invested monies to approximately $250 million. “There is significant state support and significant city support,” says Mike Zaleski, executive director of the Hartford Business Improvement District. “When you can take an old commercial building and make the top floor into residential housing, that’s where people want to live. Residents can be near bars and restaurants and within walking distance to their employers.”
Freimuth says four of the residential projects—a 26-unit building on Ann Street, a 121-unit building on Front Street, a 63-unit building on Allyn Street and a 193-unit renovation in the former Sonesta Hotel—will finalize financial packages in October and move into physical construction in either November or December. “The labor force today is much younger and more oriented to urban [living], and we don’t have the housing inventory to meet them,” says Freimuth. “That’s where the marketplace wants to go and we have to get to it. There’s an economic gap between what it costs to put these buildings up and what the market can pay. That’s our role—to gap it.”
“The perception that there’s nothing going on, it’s an old mentality,” insists Anne Orsene, executive director of the Central Regional Tourism District. Orsene believes the groundwork for improving Hartford’s reputation as a tourism destination has been aided by the $27 million “Still Revolutionary” Connecticut tourism campaign that was launched in May 2012 by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy. “There really is a lot to do,” she says. “People who end up coming to the state, they have time to take in an attraction and they’re pleasantly surprised. Once they’re here, they’re captured.”
The “Still Revolutionary” campaign has focused heavily on Connecticut’s history. Malloy has spent significant time touring sites to promote the state. The vast majority of those stops, however, have been outside of Hartford. The governor has visited the Mark Twain House and The Connecticut Science Center, according to spokesman Andrew Doba. The city’s specific role in the campaign, Orsene says, is “still in the works.” The focus has been elsewhere, because as she puts it, “For being such a small state, we have such diversity between the Litchfield Hills and Hartford and New Haven.”
“The news outlets emphasize the negative,” Orsene says. “We’re not different than any other city. We want to lead with our strengths in Hartford and support all that it has to offer.”
When pressed on what Hartford has to offer, Orsene mentions the major attractions. The real issue, she suggests, is that potential visitors, Connecticut residents in particular, aren’t tapping into these treasures. Yes, they have heard about the Wadsworth Atheneum and Bushnell Park since grade school, but they’re not actually going out to see them.
“I’ve lived here for 61 years and this was the first time I’ve been to the Wadsworth Atheneum—I loved it,” says Marge Colangelo, who recently visited the museum with family from out-of-state. “I’m sorry to say that Hartford is a lovely city with a lousy reputation.”
Local small business owner TJ Clynch, of Downtown Yoga and Civic Mind Studios, doesn’t cut complainers any slack. “People say there’s nothing to do in Hartford, so I ask, ‘Well have you been to the Atheneum? Have you been to the Science Center?’ They say no. You’ve always had to slap people in the face with it,” he says. “The reason people don’t visit is because they haven’t been here in a long time. Our parents and grandparents have told us not to go into the city. That it’s dangerous, which isn’t true. Hartford is not unsafe. I’m Gen Y and I’m not afraid of Hartford—we’re going to change it.”
Clynch’s two companies, Civic Mind Studios and Downtown Yoga, feed each other in his quest to change those perceptions and breathe new life into Hartford. The yoga studio was created out of the design firm, and Clynch believes that “yoga is the vehicle” to get people into areas of the city where they normally wouldn’t go. The studio has hosted free public yoga sessions at the city’s tourist attractions. “It’s a wellness initiative for people who work in the city,” says Clynch, who is also the president of Business for Downtown Hartford. “It gives them an incentive to stay in Hartford later.”
Other Civic Mind projects include: the Hartford Hodgepodge, an open air market on Pratt Street in the fall; Cycled Energy, Hartford’s only green cycling studio; and a weekend Earth Day celebration, held in April.
The Gale sisters, Addy, Callie and Rory, are also working to promote Hartford’s potential with their family-run paper goods shop and studio, Hartford Prints! “Our roots are really deep here,” says Rory. The sisters grew up in Hartford and are the third generation to be raised and run a small business in the city. The business began in 2009 as a letterpress studio and educational space supported by the City of Hartford Arts and Heritage Jobs Grant Program. When the grant money ran out in 2012, the sisters decided to turn their business into a for-profit letterpress studio.
In June, Hartford Prints! launched a “Local Love” campaign. Five posters were created: “Buy,” “Grow,” “Eat,” “Be” and “Live.” The posters hung in businesses and public spaces all around Hartford, inspiring appreciation and support of the city. “[The posters] were plastered everywhere as a visual representation of work we’re all doing,” says Rory. “Sometimes you can forget that there is a lot going on. We should be proud of the work we’re doing together.”
Hartford Prints! also creates a line of Hartford-centric paper goods and gifts. A T-shirt emblazoned with “Small State Big Heart” featuring the outline of Connecticut with a heart around Hartford is the studio’s best seller. “You can go to New York and find a million T-shirts saying you’re proud of New York City,” says Rory, reasoning that Hartford should have its own version.
In mid-October Hartford Prints! moved into its first retail space on Pratt Street as part of the state’s iConnect Hartford program, created and funded through the Marketing, Events & Cultural Affairs (MECA) division of the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development.
Kristina Newman-Scott, director of MECA, created iConnect in the vein of programs like New Haven’s Project Storefronts and Pop Up Pittsburgh with the idea of taking empty storefronts—a liability—and transforming them into assets. “We’ve seen a lot of programs where it’s like 'come enjoy an art exhibit and have wine and cheese’ or 'look at something through the window.’ All of that is interesting and lovely but leads to very little,” says Newman-Scott. “The purpose was to call out to creative entrepreneurs and ask, essentially, would they be interested in opening businesses in downtown?”
The program received 40 applications and MECA vetted those down to four businesses. Hartford Prints! was the first to open in their new home. “It’s worth the risk and worth experimentation because the outcome might be a few businesses that didn’t exist in downtown before,” says Newman-Scott.
Attractions such as the Connecticut Science Center, a relatively new addition to the tourism landscape, are working to change the perception of Hartford, too. The center has been hosting 21 and older parties to introduce a new crowd to the museum, which typically draws parents with young children.
Young businesses with big ideas, large institutions changing their approach and city-wide campaigns such as “Hartford Has It,” which is represented on every lamppost in downtown, are also working to transform Hartford’s vibe from dead and deserted to alive and thriving.
Hartford BID, which created that tourism campaign, aims to promote everything the city has to offer. Its visitor website, Hartford.com, promotes events happening in the city from wine tastings at local restaurants to performances at The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts. The website is designed to be more than “your typical city visitor’s bureau website, which is trying to be everything to everybody,” says Zaleski. “We’re talking about something that we really like because we’ve actually been there.”
Hartford hotels, such as the Residence Inn Marriott, are utilizing Hartford.com to keep up with what’s going on in the city. Kasi Brown, front desk agent at the Marriott and a lifelong Hartford resident, disagrees with the stereotype that there’s nothing happening in Hartford. She has no trouble with entertainment recommendations for visitors who are in town for a few nights, at a convention or a wedding. “The main place to go is Allyn and Asylum Streets. There’s the Russian Lady and other bars and clubs there,” says Brown. “Thursday, Friday and Saturday, there are always things to do.”
“There’s lots of restaurants downtown, and that’s what business people are usually looking for,” says Duane Schroder, general manager of the Hartford Hilton. “So while it’s viewed as shutting down, it’s more of a perception than a reality.”
Schroder is hopeful. He sees more restaurants opening, and points to plans for a downtown Hartford branch of Infinity Hall, the popular Norfolk music venue. The $5.2 million concert hall and bistro is expected to open on Front Street next year. “It’s slowly turning around,” he says.
A majority of Hartford tourists are business professionals in town to attend conventions—it accounts for the majority of business at both the Hartford Hilton and the Residence Inn Marriott. The Connecticut Convention Center hosts about 200 events per year, according to general manager Michael Costelli. Those events range in size from small conferences of 100 people to large conventions of 1,500 people. From his perspective, the convention center has been doing well since it opened in 2005. “In the research we’ve done, looking at the competition, we’re on par with the number of events and attendance for the size of our building,” says Costelli.
One thing that’s preventing the convention center from pulling in large events, however, is a lack of hotel rooms available in the city. With only a handful of hotels downtown, the convention center can easily pack the majority of those rooms with a large event, limiting the number who might choose to stay downtown. If there were more rooms available, Costelli says there would be opportunity to expand Hartford’s convention business.
According to Costelli, those who are considering hosting a convention in Hartford are also usually looking at Baltimore, which has an edge with the Inner Harbor and pro sports teams including the Ravens and Orioles. “When you think of cities in terms of brand recognition, Hartford’s not very strong,” says Costelli.
History is part of Hartford’s hallmark. Aside from being the state capital, the city is also home to America’s oldest public art museum, the Wadsworth Atheneum, and the oldest continually published newspaper, the Hartford Courant. Bushnell Park was the first park to be purchased by a city. The country’s first woolen mill, the first children’s magazine and the first American cookbook all were created in Hartford. Additionally, many household items were invented and patented in Hartford including the bicycle and friction matches.
Despite the illustrious history, Hartford still struggles with identity, and is often overlooked between Boston and New York City, two East Coast powerhouses.
Michael Van Parys, president of the Connecticut Convention & Sports Bureau, see that as an advantage. Only a two-hour drive from Boston and New York, it makes for a large pool to tap for conventions. Costelli says the convention center’s business tends to be split about 50/50 between people driving in from the surrounding area and people flying in from other states.
Vince Valvo of Agility Resources Group LLC, a company that books conventions in the region, is less enthusiastic about Hartford’s appeal. “Look at all the people from New York City to Boston you can tap for attendance, but will they come? No,” he says. “People from major cities don’t come to Hartford because they don’t have cars. The public transportation between the cities isn’t easy. To get to western Massachusetts, Providence, Worcester, Greenfield, there’s no good highway.”
In Van Parys’ experience marketing sporting events and conventions in Hartford for out-of-state clients, the easy drive to Boston and New York City are a draw for people who want to take day trips between their meetings. He says the majority of people are interested in hosting their event in Hartford after they come and see it for themselves. “They have to touch it and feel it,” he says. “Eighty-five percent of the time, it’s a done deal.”
Valvo disagrees. “Boston and New York are destination locations,” he says. “People will say, ‘I want to see historic Boston.’ No one is saying, ‘Oh boy, I’m going to Hartford.’ It’s a sales job.”
His strategy when trying to plan an event in Hartford is to sell the affordability, but when trying to give his attendees a variety of things to do, Valvo will often choose Foxwoods Resort Casino or Mohegan Sun. Between the restaurants, shows, shopping and gambling in the casinos, there’s always something for business professionals to do between meetings, he says.
Van Parys and Costelli acknowledge the challenges, but say Hartford’s relative size is a plus for conventions. “Boston and New York City are first-tier. They attract larger groups,” says Van Parys. “We’re a smaller city so when a group comes here they’re a big fish.”
The real task for Hartford now is bringing people back so they can rediscover the city for themselves. And clearly, that effort is evolving on multiple fronts, from growing local businesses to increasing civic engagement to drawing visitors.
“I think the important thing is that there is an energy and a vibe that has been building in the city for the last couple of years that is beyond the regular high-profile art and cultural destinations,” says Zaleski. “It is similar to other cities and that is the true revitalization.”