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US 5 Goes Urban In East Hartford

Goodwin College booms as market for career training increases

By Greg Bordonaro

August 02, 2010

The economic downturn that’s putting small businesses along East Hartford’s Main Street in survival mode, has been nothing but good news for Goodwin College.

The school’s modern professional development center located at 1137 Main St. has a front row seat on Route 5 as it winds through the city’s commercial corridor. And from that vantage point, college officials see only opportunity.

Enrollment is up 31 percent since last year and has more than doubled since 2005. As people flock back to school to refine and add marketable skills, Goodwin has been expanding.

Just last year, it opened a $41 million, six-story facility on the Connecticut River. It also owns several properties along US 5 and has been buying up housing throughout the town.

Long term, the college has plans to construct additional academic and residential buildings.

But Goodwin’s successes are a tribute to the pain others are feeling along Main Street. The Great Recession has hit many small businesses hard, and the companies sprinkled along Route 5 in East Hartford have been no exception.

“Business is the worst it’s ever been,” said Ed Fichera, who owns Main Hardware on Main Street with his father John.

Fichera’s family has owned Main Hardware since 1983, and Ed Fichera began working there in 2001, after he lost his job as an electrical engineer during the early 2000’s recession. He’s never left the business since then, because he said he loves the job.

But it hasn’t been easy lately, as business has steadily declined since 2007.

Fewer people are renovating or upgrading their homes because of the poor economy, Fichera said, and that has cut into the store’s profits. Instead, most customers are performing preventive maintenance, which means they are purchasing fewer and less expensive items.

“Most of the people I deal with on a daily basis are doing repairs only,” Fichera said. “We are not selling bulk products right now.”

To control costs, Main Hardware has stopped its local advertising.

Ed Fichera said they thought about selling the company during the last recession in 2001, but business steadily increased as the economy recovered. There are no plans to sell or close the store right now, Fichera said, but “if things continue to get worse, we will have more discussions about what to do with it.”

About two miles down the road from Main Hardware is the School Street Square plaza located on 265 Ellington Rd. In recent years it has lost a few major tenants, including brand names like Big Y, Blockbuster and Better Beddings. The vacancy rate is about 40 percent, city officials said.

Marc Glass, who owns Marc D. Glass Insurance Agency in the plaza, said he's noticed less foot traffic in his one-man shop as a result of the closings. That has forced him to change the way he markets and advertises his small business. Now he mails out letters to potential clients and also posts notes on vehicles in the plaza’s parking lot.

But overall, Glass said, business has remained relatively steady, noting that insurance tends to be recession proof. Glass opened his company about two years ago after he left Allstate. It was perfect timing, Glass said, because becoming an independent agent allows him to offer coverage from 45 different insurance companies. Such choice and variety is important to recession-weary consumers who are looking for the best possible deals.

“People are looking for the best coverage’s at the lowest price right now,” Glass said.

While business along Route 5 remains on shaky ground, Goodwin College is coming off a record year, with enrollment topping 2,083 students in 2009, up from 1,589 students in 2008.

“Any school that deals with retraining is countercyclical to a recession,” explained Mark Scheinberg, president of the school. “When the economy goes bad, is when we find ourselves the most deluged with new business.”

Goodwin’s recent success has made the school a major player in real estate development in town. Goodwin College owns 39 units, at 24 separate locations in East Hartford covering 1,000 acres.

The school, which was founded in 1999 at the former site of the Data Institute Business School, has its main campus along the Connecticut River, where it has a 109,000-square-foot academic center.

Along Route 5, Goodwin owns several properties including 1137 Main St., where it has a professional development building that provides corporate training. It’s also home to the East Hartford Chamber of Commerce.

The school uses 403 Main St. for office space, classrooms and labs.

Goodwin also bought and demolished the former storefront held by Yankee Café at 381 Main St. That space remains open and is being considered for several uses, school officials said.

Scheinberg said Goodwin was in a good place coming into the recession because it doesn’t rely heavily on state aid or an endowment, two income sources that have taken serious hits in recent years for many higher education institutions.

Goodwin’s students are typically looking for training that will lead to a job directly after graduation.

Goodwin has garnered attention for its health sciences programs, including nursing, which is among the largest programs in Connecticut. School officials say they have seen the most demand for service industry training, including in health care, early childhood education, and human services.

As the economy heads toward a slow recovery, Goodwin likely won’t continue to grow at the huge rates it has seen in recent years, Scheinberg admits. But he expects an annual 10 to 20 percent increase for the foreseeable future.

That is welcome news to businesses along Main Street, who say they are benefitting from Goodwin’s growth.

Ernie Hutt, who is an owner of Augie & Ray’s, said Goodwin students and faculty frequent his restaurant, which has helped his business.

“It’s been very important and it’s going to be bigger,” Hutt said.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Business Journal. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Business Journal Archives at http://www.hartfordbusiness.com/archives.php.
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