HARTFORD —— At least four vacant downtown storefronts will get facelifts and new tenants — including a pet store that sells locally sourced dog and cat food, a pop-up museum and a print shop — as part of the city's iConnect initiative.
In a downtown that has struggled with retail vacancy in recent years, the goal of the project is to establish businesses for a trial eight-month period, in hopes that they will be successful enough to remain open permanently.
From more than 40 applicants, the city has chosen Hartford Prints, a family-run paper goods store and studio currently in the city's Parkville neighborhood that creates personal stationery and invitations, among other things; National Exhibitions and Archives, a pop-up museum and print-on-demand gallery, which will host traveling exhibitions; Farm Shop, an urban farm hub that will sell organic food and supplies, such as plants, seeds and organic soil, as well as host workshops on cooking; and Natural Dogs and Cats, a pet store selling dog and cat food.
iConnect is partly funded by a $100,000 grant from a state program working to draw more people into cities and towns through arts and cultural activities. The city is contributing $65,000 toward the effort as part of its federal grant matching program.
The city has not yet disclosed exactly where the businesses will be because officials are still negotiating with the landlords, but the target area is Pratt, Pearl, Main and Trumbull streets. The shop owners chosen for the program will qualify for free or reduced rent, plus a subsidy for utility bills. The city is talking to landlords about offering free rent for the trial period and determining the extent of the utility subsidy.
The city does not have a pet store, said Kristina Newman-Scott, the city's director of marketing, events and cultural affairs.
"Currently, people have to go to West Hartford or the Berlin Turnpike to get their pet products," she said. "We have a substantial pet community downtown and a lot of pets overall in our city."
Besides adding the four companies, the city is looking to create a marketplace, similar to a flea market or art fair, that would fill a vacant spot on Trumbull Street. It also hopes to bring live broadcasts of WNPR's "Where We Live" and "The Colin McEnroe Show" downtown. Newman-Scott said officials have reached an agreement with WNPR, but a remote studio location has not been finalized.
Program managers are exploring bringing a fifth business — called Deft Collective — downtown, possibly to share a space with WNPR, Newman-Scott said. The co-work space would be designed to attract entrepreneurs and people from the business community who could benefit from a group setting.
Rory Gale, who owns Hartford Prints with her two sisters, said she hopes to move to a storefront on Pratt Street from their current studio space on Arbor Street.
"One side of our business is wedding invitations and we'd love to be on Pratt Street with the Society Room," she said.
Gale, a city native who attended Hartford Public High School, said her goal was to open a larger shop within the company's first five years of business. iConnect has enabled her to do it during the first year.
"We're lucky," she said Monday. "We're trying to create products that represent our city. If you live here or you're visiting as a tourist, there's not really any memorabilia you can purchase to show your support for the city. We want to be an active space and somewhere people can come and buy things for and about Hartford.
"We want to be part of making it successful."
The first business could open as early as May, Newman-Scott said.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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