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Thumbs Up For New Handel Performing Arts Center

Stan Simpson

September 17, 2008

The transformation of a vacant Cadillac dealership in north Hartford into an expansive performance arts center for the University of Hartford was 10 years in the making.

The Hartt School Mort and Irma Handel Performing Arts Center opened Friday. It will raise the profile of U of H as one of the country's top-flight performing arts universities — and will serve as a $22 million bookend to the sparkling Artists Collective cultural arts center a half-mile away on Albany Avenue.

Sure, the foundation for what could be a unique urban cultural corridor is still wet. But, folks, this is how neighborhoods are transformed. The prediction here is that the Handel center will trigger new economic development in the city's Upper Albany section, which serves as a gateway from the Farmington Valley into Hartford.

Across the street, at the corner of Homestead and Albany avenues, a large swath of vacant industrial buildings sit, just waiting for the wrecking ball, some environmental cleanup and an ambitious developer to see there's gold in north Hartford.

At the arts center alone, 600 dance and theater students will patronize a new building each week. So maybe the city rezones the industrial parcel, and a developer builds some retail and arts lofts and recruits franchises and small businesses.

The university has already received interest from a lobbyist representing a business interest that has its eye on the land. A People's United Bank branch and a Backstage Café, serving organic coffee and sandwiches, are new tenants within the center and already attracting outsiders.

Remember, Upper Albany, one of the city's poorest neighborhoods, is just a couple of blocks from one of its wealthiest — Scarborough Street.

Cesar Davis, 22, lives two blocks up the road from the Handel center. He stopped by the café Tuesday with his friend Adam Thomas, whose mother works at the eatery.

"It's better than having that empty lot doing nothing," Davis said of the former dealership. "I think this will bring more traffic and more upper-class people, and that also will help bring up the community."

Davis said it's likely that homeowners across from the arts center will be sprucing up their homes in anticipation that the 55,000-square-foot brick and glass building will increase home values. "I see this helping the community out," he said.

It already has. University officials say 40 percent of the construction work was performed by minority-owned, women-owned and small businesses. The economic impact could be overshadowed by the influence that culture and arts bring to a community.

"I've already seen classes for small children coming in," said Jayce Johnson, 18, a freshman music theater major from Las Vegas, by way of Mexico. "It's just going to bring more and more generations of people to the arts. It's so important to have culture. It's how we show society what [the world] is like from an outside point of view. ...Some of us were a bit nervous that it was so close to the downtown area, but we see now that it's a great area and there's nothing to worry about."

The arts center will enhance the university, the neighborhood and the Artists Collective and should be a boon for economic development.

For U of H students, mostly a well-heeled bunch, it gets them out of the cocoon of a private university and engaging in the real world. Upper Albany residents can see an expansion of an educational institution that is reaching beyond its borders and embracing the struggling community in its backyard. Preliminary assessment: This was money well spent.

Stan Simpson's column appears on Wednesdays and Saturdays. He can be heard live Saturday on WTIC NewsTalk 1080 from 5:30 a.m. to 10 a.m.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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