Say this much about Abul Islam, the businessman and developer who wants to transform the old WFSB property in downtown Hartford into 15 stories of apartments; he is resilient. He has overcome stereotypes about his culture and religion in making the transition from left-leaning socialist sympathizer as a kid in Pakistan to unapologetic American capitalist — and real estate investor.
The last 21 years as an entrepreneur have sharpened his resolve that when it comes to business and investing, the goal is to grow — BIG.
As president and CEO of AI Engineers Inc., in Middletown, Islam is living his American dream. The husband-and-wife engineering and construction management firm he founded in 1991 has evolved into a vibrant company, employing 104 people.
Islam is emerging as "one to watch" on the Connecticut business and real estate development scene. One of his personal investment plans — now nothing more than a fenced-in hole at the former Broadcast House site downtown — is one to watch as well.
Four years ago, Islam bought the property that TV personalities such as Gayle King and Bill O'Reilly once called home — and razed it. What some see as an eyesore, he sees as a potential haven for young professionals and empty nesters. In fact, he's betting much of his personal wealth on such a notion.
The Residences at River View plan is a $50 million, 195-unit apartment, L-shaped behemoth (with studio, one- and two-bedroom units) that Islam believes will revitalize the capital city and link Constitution Plaza to the convention center and Front Street.
He has invested $2.5 million of his money — and is hoping that the bulk of the remaining money will come from public dollars. Ambitious, indeed.
Islam's earlier plans to build an office tower on the site were scrapped because the area's commercial market couldn't support it. At first blush, it sure looks to be the case with this apartment proposal (and the residential market) as well.
But Islam is unwavering, believing that Hartford is well positioned for this investment.
I had the opportunity to meet Islam recently. He is bright, energetic man who, remembering his humble beginnings as math and chemistry whiz in Pakistan, volunteers his time as an advisory board member for the Academy of Engineering and Green Technology at Hartford Public High School. He's motivated by seeing how far he can push the limits on his business, investment and philanthropic goals.
If the growth trajectory of AI Engineers is any indication, then don't rule out some sort of success for the WFSB property. AI Engineers barely got by as a struggling small business in the 1990s. Today, it generates $13 million a year in revenue; and Islam's plan is to double revenue in three years and to expand overseas.
He really can't lose with the WFSB site. If the apartment proposal falters, Islam can come up with another smaller-scale residential or commercial project. It will be interesting to watch Islam compete and make the case for his apartment complex
His proposal comes at a time when the economy is decidedly sluggish; yet there is about $60 million in funding assistance for downtown housing construction through Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's initiatives to build more housing in Hartford. Other housing developers are competing with Islam for that public assistance.
A few years back, while Malloy was still mayor of Stamford, I rode through town with him as he showed me block after block of new housing development. It was quite impressive to see the new homes in the bustling city. But Stamford — dubbed "The City that Works" — also had a growing business base to support such housing. Hartford, as yet, does not. So, the question that planning, zoning and financiers have to ask about Islam's plan is, can this work?
The public is also a lot more wary about investing tax dollars in real estate or business ventures. Islam's challenge is leveraging support in selling his 200,000-square-foot proposal as something that will truly benefit Hartford.
The timing may not right for such a development, but the timing may never be better for a developer because of the bucks that are available.
For entrepreneurs and investors like Islam, it is all about persistence.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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