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Inject A Little Life Downtown, Get Hartford Hopping


April 17, 2011

A suburban town official recently observed that "Nobody goes to Hartford anymore." Come on. Hundreds of thousands of people go to the theaters, the Science Center, the XL Center and Connecticut Convention Center, among other destinations.

But this said, the guy may have had a point about the feel of the streets and downtown life. Walk through West Hartford Center on a nice evening and the town really bops. Walk down the main drag in a city such as Saratoga, N.Y., and you catch the excitement. In downtown Hartford that feeling is at best intermittent.

So, what mitigates against an exciting urban feel in Hartford? The inherent conservatism of an insurance town? The Business Improvement District and its partner, Business for Downtown, have made Hartford's center city clean and safe. The Greater Hartford Convention & Visitors Bureau struggles with huge budget cuts but still brings in many gatherings, and the MetroHartford Alliance holds many successful events, especially its young professional effort.

The Greater Hartford Arts Council continues Aetna First Thursdays. But remember when they were a big deal? Pump them up! Some downtown establishments have come up with creative ideas to increase traffic. For example: Vito's by the Park offers "Romance in the Afternoon," table-side cooking for senior groups after 1:30 p.m. McKinnon's hosts an internationally known "Irish Session" every Wednesday, and the Arch Street Tavern and Black-Eyed Sally's have jazz on Monday nights.

All this is terrific, but it's not the kind of out-of-the-box funkiness that gets people talking and develops a buzz. We need to look at the downtown space with different eyes, and see where flower boxes and murals might go, outdoor seating would work, a corner could be a site for musicians or performers. In that vein, here are a few simple, inexpensive ideas that don't need much planning or expense:

•Water lilies in the Bushnell Park pond. The Wadsworth Atheneum would love to tie them in with its Monet exhibit. It's simple — just float some water lilies and watch them multiply. Why not re-open the Pump House patio? It could be developed into a full-scale restaurant, sandwiches fine for now.

•Tables and umbrellas outside the Trumbull Street side of the XL Center. What wasted space! A cabaret setting just begging for action, most restaurants and now a market have food to go. So, all that's needed are a few tables, chairs and umbrellas and a busker or two.

•Buskers. Street entertainers could be performing all over downtown, if modest stipends were available (a lot of talented young people are looking for summer jobs). Musicians, magicians, stilt-walkers, etc., would liven up our quiet streets at little cost. As an example, the trumpet player outside the Bushnell is part of the show.

• The University of Hartford's wonderful collection of presidential memorabilia, the most extensive such private collection in the country, sits in a warehouse. Stores in the XL Center are empty. This isn't brain surgery, bring it downtown. The university is willing to play ball.

• Put displays in empty windows. Get off the computer and make a deal. Many cities fill every empty window or storefront with murals or dioramas.

•Information signs. For example, many visitors want to go to Nook Farm but don't know to grab a Farmington Avenue bus. Many don't realize the Old State House is open. A couple of kiosks explaining such are needed. The iQuilt plan is in the process of suggesting these changes; let's get them done.

It's good to plan for big investments, but let's do something today, for this spring and summer. We have a safe, clean downtown with great restaurants, attractions and many interesting shops. Let's just add LIFE.

Mike McGarry is a businessman and former Hartford city councilman.

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.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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