It wasn’t a coincidence that in his first few days in office Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra announced that the city had reached a tentative agreement to acquire and then demolish the five-story H.B. Davis Building on Main Street, commonly known as the "Butt Ugly Building.”
The building, which was at the heart of the corruption case against disgraced Mayor Eddie Perez, has been an eyesore to incoming downtown residents for years, and tearing it down would represent a fresh start for Hartford symbolically.
But the move is part of a larger economic development plan that Segarra and his top lieutenants are now constructing, which will guide the city over the next year and a half, and beyond.
Segarra recently sat down with the Hartford Business Journal to discuss his top economic development priorities.
His challenges are many, and an ailing economy is chief among them. A day before the interview, Hartford-based United Technologies announced it will lay off 1,500 workers in the next few years. Then, St. Francis Hospital said it would shed 200 jobs in August.
Meanwhile, downtown office and retail vacancies are hovering near all-time highs putting further pressure on city budget revenues.
But the soft-spoken Segarra remains optimistic. Seated next to city economic development guru David Panagore, the mayor said he’s ready to be the chief marketing officer of the city. And he wants to portray an upbeat message.
His early moves include forming a four-member cabinet that includes himself, Panagore, and two newly named top officials: Saundra Kee Borges, the corporation counsel, and Jose Colon-Rivas, the acting chief of staff.
The cabinet is holding several “retreats,” where they are outlining the goals of the administration. Economic development is one of the core concentrations, Segarra said.
Segarra, 51, was born in Puerto Rico and spent part of his childhood in the Bronx, New York. Before taking over as mayor following the criminal conviction and resignation of Perez, he was president of the city council.
His plans include delivering on long-promised, but never-realized initiatives like redeveloping the site of the “Butt Ugly Building,” — a name Segarra dislikes and refuses to repeat. Bringing a grocery store to downtown Hartford is another priority.
He also wants to fulfill the urban renewal plans set out by the previous administration, which includes redeveloping or revitalizing the northern, eastern and western sections of downtown.
Segarra is also a supporter of the arts, and he wants to leverage Hartford’s historical assets — like the Mark Twain House, Wadsworth Atheneum and Bushnell — to promote economic development through tourism, an industry capable of growing jobs.
But Segarra’s plans go beyond simple piece-metal development. He has a much larger, macro view of the Hartford economy. Its success, Segarra says, lies in revitalizing several components including education, public safety, workforce development, and most importantly fiscal responsibility.
“There are so many pieces and so many dots that need to be connected that part of the task is bringing all the players and institutions together,” Segarra said. “But we can’t even begin to move outside our sphere of municipal government unless we have our fiscal house in order.”
Here’s what else Segarra had to say:
Why are education and public safety a key component of your economic development strategy?
We need to continue to support education at all levels so we can create a labor force that can complement what we want to achieve in the business sector. When companies think about relocating, one of the main things they consider is the education levels of a prospective region.
We need more job training and education opportunities for city residents. Workforce development will lead to neighborhood improvement and, if you raise the condition of a neighborhood, economic development will follow.
So what are the future plans for the “Butt Ugly Building” site?
My preference is not to just turn this area into a parking lot. We should try to promote work for the private sector either through a joint partnership or having a company come in and develop the area.
We need to create or advance enterprises that enhance our tax base so we can continue to reinvest in our infrastructure and create jobs.
So what is the status of a downtown grocery store?
Bringing a grocery store to downtown has been a big priority for me. I think I made enough noise about how interested I am in this, that I’m starting to see a little bit more activity on it. The question remains to what extent we put our own assets into it.
We continue to work with Northland Investment Corp. on this, and we are currently under one set of negotiations for the Northland location.
What can be done to fill downtown office and retail vacancies?
It is somewhat scary to see that there is such a high vacancy rate in the city. To some degree we might have limitations as a municipality on what we can do about it, but that doesn’t mean you just sit there and blame the market.
We must market the city in the right areas and work collaboratively with retailers in downtown to attract new businesses. We are looking at incremental activities like bringing a grocery store to downtown, which I believe can be a bellwether to other stores moving in.
There is also a more transformative approach, looking at what we can do from the public realm to make downtown a more exciting place to be.
What do you see as the city’s future job creation sectors?
We are looking at growth sectors in the city for precision manufacturing, medical services, green technology, and teaching.
I think medical and biotechnology fields are indispensible and when we look at our vacancies, I think those are the areas that can help fill up our empty buildings. I went to New Haven and saw their Science Park and I think that is a good concept we could probably implement here.
Can anything be done about the high property taxes that downtown Hartford landlords and businesses face?
That’s probably the No. 1 legislative priority in terms of what needs to be fixed. It’s a difficult issue because 50 percent of the city’s property base is tax exempt.
I am working with mayors of other cities to see what we can do jointly in terms of pressuring for a system that is fair to the cities.
We need to have a system where we are not burdened with having to provide all these services and meet unfunded mandates, when the only vehicle we have to generate our revenues is basically the real estate tax.
Are you in favor of a new arena for downtown Hartford?
It hasn’t been discussed yet, but to me it’s important that we first use the capacity we do have. I don’t know if we have made maximum use of what we have, and I don’t know what an expansion would realistically bring to the city.
The question is ‘How much of the public’s resources do we use to try to promote something.’ Unless you are guaranteed to get a return on the investment, you have to be cautious.
I am mindful to what the sports world brings to this region.