August 28, 2005
By RITU KALRA, And KENNETH R. GOSSELIN Courant Staff Writers
Whispers about the Hartford area have caught wind.
And they are building into a buzz.
For two days last week, real estate scouts who help companies find sites
for their operations visited Greater Hartford to see what the region has
They left with an impression of an area taking wing - home to more than
just the insurance industry, pleasantly uncongested, with an ample supply
of educated workers, and, oh yeah, with a Cabela's superstore on the way.
Although the metropolitan area still faces significant obstacles, it's a
noteworthy shift from the impression site consultants had of the region just
two years ago.
"There's a lot more here than I thought there was. I didn't realize
how much the area has to offer," said Joseph Callanan, president of
Dallas-based Trammell Crow's Northeast region.
Several consultants echoed Callanan's pleasant surprise over the course
of a two-day tour, which was coordinated by the MetroHartford Alliance in
an attempt to put the region on the radar screen for this key constituency.
Site location consultants and their counterparts within a corporation play
a critical role in the economic development process. Companies use them to
help find sites that have the basic ingredients required to set up operations:
an affordable, educated workforce that has industry skills or can be readily
trained; access to suppliers and the main raw ingredients that go into their
products; proximity to customers; and a transportation system that connects
To Hartford's economic development officials, site selectors are gatekeepers
to corporations - and the jobs, tax base and increased economic activity
that accompany them.
Wooing business to set up shop in the area would help accelerate the region's
economy, which has struggled for years to create jobs. The unemployment rate
in Greater Hartford is among the top in the state, which in turn lags the
nation in job growth.
"We needed to let the site selectors see that we can compete throughout
the U.S. for new business and that we're a viable location for businesses
to locate to," said Marie Bonelli, a spokeswoman for the alliance.
As a result of the tour, she said, "Hopefully
they'll think of us."
The alliance sponsored its first tour for site selectors nearly three years
ago and got an earful: The Hartford area wasn't on the map nationally as
an option for expansion or relocation. Marketing efforts needed to be ramped
up. Economic development websites, with information about available space
and land, needed to be created or the area wouldn't be considered.
Since then, a website with thousands of pieces of information about the
Hartford-Springfield area has gone up. Hartford now has a state-of-the-art
convention center, an upscale hotel opened last week, and hundreds of apartments
and condominiums are being built downtown.
Dennis J. Donovan, who heads site selecting firm Wadley Donovan Gutshaw
Consulting in New Jersey, said efforts to raise the Hartford area's profile
nationally are, for the most part, beginning to gain momentum.
"There's one exception: Not funding a major national marketing campaign," he
Donovan, one of the site selectors who visited in 2002, said at least $2
million a year should be spent in marketing the area. The alliance's budget
now sets aside about $50,000 a year for such efforts.
Last week's site selector tour, which drew eight consultants, cost $70,000
and was heavily sponsored by the local corporate community.
"Their work will never fully be realized without a national campaign," Donovan
Despite the lack of broader marketing efforts, the tour left a strong impression
with those who had started to hear about Hartford but had never visited.
Jonathan Sangster, senior managing director at CB Richard Ellis Consulting
in Atlanta, said he gets at least 25 invitations a year for site selector
tours and accepts about a half-dozen. He chose Hartford this year because,
like many in the group, he figured it was time to get to know the area.
"My perception of Hartford was that insurance was the strength and
foundation of the area," Sangster said. "I thought that the cost
of living must be very high because it is in the Northeast. And that
was about it."
What Sangster found surprised him. Although the insurance industry is certainly
a major employer, it has spawned other businesses, including those that focus
on technology and information. The economy also is much more diverse than
Sangster and others expected, with a strong presence of biotech, life sciences
and high-tech, precision manufacturing firms.
The diversity of businesses is a key selling point to corporate clients,
the site selectors said. It implies that access to suppliers and customers
- a prerequisite in any location decision - already exists.
"The area now seems to have a genuine critical mass in the high-tech
fields," Donovan said. "Five or six years ago, that wasn't here.
Hartford's becoming more legitimate. I and my clients can seriously
consider it now."
Donovan's serious consideration in turn raised pointed questions, particularly
about Hartford's reputation as a stagnant town with aging infrastructure.
During the tour, Donovan drilled alliance representatives about the proportion
of the private-sector workforce that belongs to a union and the reliability
of the area's electricity transmission capacity, both key considerations
for his high-tech manufacturing clients.
He was surprised when told that the Connecticut
workforce was slightly, but not "significantly," more unionized than workforces in other
areas of the country (16 percent compared with 13 percent), and that central
Connecticut had "excellent" power transmission.
"You should put that on your website," he
Besides emphasizing Hartford's viability as a business center, organizers
highlighted lifestyle issues.
On Thursday - a clear, cloudless morning - the consultants were treated
to an hourlong helicopter ride over verdant hills, crystal lakes and the
city skyline, sprinkled with commentary from alliance representatives about
the business parks and university campuses below. The morning ride was followed
by an afternoon at the Buick Championship watching some of the nation's top
golfers competing in Cromwell.
The red-carpet tour presented a new view of Greater Hartford as a livable
place that offers bucolic settings with easy access to an urban anchor.
"It accomplished two days' worth of touring in a van," said
Susan Arledge, president of Arledge Partners Real Estate Group in Dallas.
"You know, you think of the Northeast and you think of how congested
it is. You don't think of the natural beauty and the compactness. These towns
are all drivable," she said as the helicopter was landing.
Factors such as commute time can sometimes make or break location decisions,
Arledge said. So can access to cultural and recreational resources, and shopping
amenities such as Cabela's - the country's largest direct marketer of outdoor
merchandise - heighten the area's attraction.
"Cabela's, that's very cool," said
Christen Hall, Atlanta-based director of business development at the Staubach
Co., a site selection firm that represents more than 2,000 clients.
The retailer plans to build its first tourist destination superstore in
New England on Rentschler Field in East Hartford. The 200,000-square-foot
shopping outlet - with a large, man-made lake - could draw 3 million to 4
million visitors annually, and possibly prompt the construction of new hotels.
Enthusiasm for Hartford was tempered among the consultants by a perception
that Connecticut is stingy in offering tax breaks to win corporate business.
Although they acknowledged that incentives are the least important factor
in landing a deal - and irrelevant without the business basics - subsidies
can often serve as the tie-breaker between competing locations.
With a total package of about $2,000 per job, Connecticut lags behind competitors
such as New York, which often shells out between $5,000 and $10,000 in tax
incentives per job created, Donovan said.
"Connecticut is noncompetitive," Donovan said, shaking his head. "It's
a shame, because you need the incentive to close a deal. Selling a
community or a state is like selling any other product. And every salesman
needs a closer. That's not corporate welfare, that's capitalism."
Still, the site consultants said their impressions of Hartford had improved
considerably - so much so that some expressed concern that too much success
would breed its own problems.
Abbye Suskin, who scouts real estate for AIG, noted that there was little
discussion of mass transit.
"Your wonderfully empty road system is going to get full if all these
development plans come to pass," she said.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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