There is much to be learned about urban planning of late, as Hartford’s downtown residents are all atwitter at the announcement that some sort of grocery store is coming to serve their upscale needs.
Hartford is not alone among the mid-sized, semi-struggling cities hoping against hope that a real grocery store will come downtown, to avoid the irritation of having to send the professional class out to the suburbs for beef and bread and bon-bons.
While the tiny convenience stores can make do keeping costs low and selling commodities, the real grocers need a pool of affluent, disposable-income types of customers to gobble up higher-margin products. That pool of folk has not been easy to find in the Hartford and Springfield and Waterbury downtowns of this world in recent years.
There is a certain chicken-and-egg challenge in all this: Is the lack of a grocery store keeping the pretty people out, or is the lack of those whose checks don’t bounce discouraging the grocers from coming to town?
For Hartford, which is still blessed with some downtown office towers populated with corporate types, the challenge has been to entice the folks to stay in town after work — at least to drink and eat and play, if not to settle down and buy a downtown condo.
The results have been mixed, but somehow that grocery store thing keeps coming up — either as an obstacle to keeping the professionals in town — or as a symbol of a downtown that somehow just isn’t cool enough to live in.
It’s not unreasonable to imagine that there is more symbol than substance to all this. With ING Group pulling out the last of its downtown employees and consolidating up the road in Windsor; with the convention center not exactly mobbed on a daily basis; with too many empty storefronts; the role of the grocery store may seem a bit overplayed.
But there is an element of the urban planning game that yearns for cool downtowns, filled with the artsy-craftsy, rootless young professional crowd who will sit for hours at cafes and drink enough to satisfy the profit margins of the establishments designed to serve them. Do the drinkers have to actually “live” downtown to make it work? Not necessarily, but it helps. And, thus, the prayers for a grocery store.
The more encouraging strategy for Hartford’s future may have come from the mayor’s office, where the pledge is to cajole, beg, and insist that the state move a few more things downtown, be they UConn health center facilities or state offices or, well, almost anything. The theory is that government employees can be forced to work downtown, whether they want to be there or not — generating more “activity” and foot traffic and, of course, grocery store sales.
The relocation of Capitol City Community College downtown certainly helped fill an at-risk piece of downtown property, but the area around the building does not reflect a renaissance fueled by higher education.
At the core of the grocery store mental illness is Richard Florida’s well-received book, “The Rise of the Creative Class,” which sort of told cities such as Hartford that with all the typewriter factories now out of business, you needed to attract creative folks with big brains, big checking accounts, and who can at least interact and dress and spend well enough to pretend to be gay.
In the Hartford area, Cohen the Columnist may fill the bill, but what about those actuaries at the insurance companies and the engineers from UTC? Not so cool. But, they still need a grocery store.