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The Hartford Club: Reasserting Public Mission

By LARRY BROWN

May 16, 2010

The outside of The Hartford Club is elegant and formidable, with two columns standing strong and inflexible against colonial brick. That's why Hartford's last and largest city club is often stereotyped as a traditional enclave of privilege, an unchanging nexus of exclusivity, toasted with martinis and Macanudos.

Maybe there are clubs out there where that picture is true. But that's not what's happening here. The purpose of a club, after all, isn't to serve meals and cocktails. It's to bring together like-minded people. In this case, that means people who want to help the Hartford area, and who are in positions to do something about it.

For the Hartford Club, this is a time to reassert its leadership mission. As with most organizations public, private or nonprofit the economic dysfunction of the past 18 months has posed significant challenges for the Hartford Club. Yet, true to its history of being a place that cultivates innovative thinkers, the club is being proactive and creative in overcoming those obstacles.

Also true to its character, many of the things the club is doing include reaching out to the community, to involve even more people and organizations with the club's success.

Over the past year, for example, the club began a new program that aids the region's nonprofits. Many have seen their funding slip; many have tightened their budgets. The Hartford Club reached out to these organizations and created a special membership class so leaders of those nonprofits could use the club facilities to promote their aims and interact with the club's regular members.

This special "associate membership" is free to the nonprofit organizations. Since instituting the program, more than a dozen Greater Hartford nonprofits from the Wadsworth Atheneum to the Girl Scouts have enrolled in the service.

Rather than being inwardly focused, the Hartford Club has been working hard to communicate its leadership commitment to the health and well-being of the Hartford region. That's why the club revamped its internal newsletter, The Prospect, into a glossy bimonthly magazine for Greater Hartford. The publication goes far beyond the club's membership, reaching more than 10,000 professionals in the capital region.

The magazine isn't a fluffy listing of social events. It's examined the foreclosure issues facing the city's business district and pinned down local bankers about the availability of capital. It's also looked at the performance of the state's chief justice and talked about why environmentalism is being preached from the pulpits throughout the area. The Prospect isn't a tout for the Hartford Club it's an unfettered voice for ideas and opportunities, a reflection of what the club itself is talking about.

Outreach likes this pays dividends. New membership inquiries are at an all-time high, and monthly applications are consistently at levels two to three times what they were in the past few years.

The club's event business has been strong, and its share of social events, such as weddings, has more than doubled so far this year.

Five years ago, the club's 1904 Georgian Revival building on Prospect Street suffered substantial damage. Club members had to decide what to do. Sell the building? Move the club? In the end, the membership voted that the structure's grandeur and history were too important. The club closed for months while repairs were made, and then successfully re-opened for business.

But for all the beauty of its building, the Hartford Club is not about the clubhouse, but the people who use it. It's about being a central place, where the arts, business and political worlds all meet. It's about creating an atmosphere where ideas can flourish and be acted on by people who have the will and the wherewithal to do so.

When companies downsize or move out of the region, that has a direct effect on the pool of likely club members. But it's also what galvanizes an organization like the Hartford Club to be even more highly focused on its true mission.

Yes, the cigar lounge is fun. But that's not why the Hartford Club is here, or what makes its future so important to this city.

In its 137-year history, the club has given much to Hartford, and endured much. It has seen recessions, depressions, slowdowns, "bursting bubbles" and bursting pipes. It has adapted to changing times before, and is doing so now.

The club's yesterdays are ones of adaptation, fortitude and service. Those are also its tomorrows. And that's the picture of the Hartford Club that will endure.

Larry Brown of West Hartford is president of The Hartford Club.

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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