Mayor Eddie Perez launched his second four-year term this week with several good ideas and one clunker.
In his inaugural address Monday night, Mr. Perez laid out a bold plan to remake the area just north of downtown, now an unsightly barrier to growth.
He also expressed support for a new sports and entertainment arena, and announced he will form a task force to gauge public and private support for such a facility.
The city has higher priorities. Mr. Perez should heed the advice of a 10-member visiting panel of experts from the Urban Land Institute who spent a week in September studying the neighborhoods north and west of downtown.
The panel recommended modernizing the Hartford Civic Center (now the XL Center), not razing and replacing it.
The panel tried to move the city's thinking away from grand "silver bullet" projects and toward smaller, infill projects. Mr. Perez apparently hasn't embraced this wise advice.
In his address, the mayor said when the state turns the existing building over to the city in 2013, the choices are to invest in a new building or have the present facility "face the same fate as the now demolished New Haven Coliseum."
Not necessarily. The New Haven arena was not modernized, but allowed to deteriorate. It had minor league hockey over the years, but did not have the major draw of UConn basketball. Interestingly, New Haven has the most vibrant downtown of any of the state's large cities without a sports arena.
We don't mean to suggest a new arena would be a bad thing; it wouldn't. But as studies have shown, arenas are not particularly good economic engines. Unless the city had a commitment from a major league hockey or basketball team, or a private donor with deep pockets, what public money is available ought to go toward smaller projects — such as ones Mr. Perez talked about in another part of his speech.
He said he would soon unveil a redevelopment plan for the north downtown area stretching from Constitution Plaza to Asylum Hill. This plan will enable the city to condemn and acquire blighted properties such as the empty Clarion Hotel or the embarrassing Capital West eyesore on Myrtle Street.
Focusing on these smaller properties as part of a plan to expand downtown northward across I-84 sounds better than the siren song of another big bang project, a lure to which the city has succumbed in the past.
There were other good ideas in the mayor's speech, such as a regional transportation network, increased health care for city residents, an anti-blight program and a new independent ethics counsel.
Mr. Perez should put these worthy measures in the hands of his department heads, and devote himself to economic development. When he spoke of new development, the mayor mentioned publicly funded projects such as a school, a senior center and public housing. Hartford needs more private sector investment and jobs. That should be his first priority for the next four years.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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