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Take That, New Haven

Hartford, Bridgeport Near Top In Metro Area Survey; Elm City Is Looking Up


September 09, 2009

No one would doubt that in a survey of college towns, Boston, San Francisco, Austin and Ann Arbor would rise to the top in their respective categories for large and small cities.

But Hartford and Bridgeport? And if they are near the top of those lists, who would expect New Haven to be an also-ran?

That's what happened when the American Institute for Economic Research looked at 360 U.S. metro areas and towns, dividing them according to size and then crunched the data on everything from student concentration, restaurants and cultural establishments to unemployment, cost of living, accessibility, research capacity and entrepreneurial activity.

In the category of mid-sized metro areas, Hartford ranked third, just behind San Jose, Calif., and Austin, Texas. Hartford beat out places such as Denver, Portland, Ore., New Orleans and Providence, home to Brown University and other colleges.

In the small metro division, Bridgeport ranked second, right behind Boulder, Colo. Ranked below Bridgeport were Ann Arbor, Mich.; Gainesville, Fla.; Madison, Wis.; Durham, N.C.; Albany, N.Y.; and, at number 18, New Haven.

If the results are surprising to those who know college towns, it's partly because this study looked at whole metro areas, going well beyond the limits of the central cities.

The Hartford metro region included Storrs, where the University of Connecticut is located; New Britain, with Central Connecticut State University; and Middletown, with Wesleyan University, along with other colleges.

In the case of Bridgeport, Stamford and Norwalk were also included.

The New Haven area included Milford.

The study also doesn't take into account the more ineffable elements that make a good college town: that special youthful energy. "Let me know if you have an idea how to measure that," said Kerry Lynch, a senior fellow at the Great Barrington-based independent research institute. The study "gives you a starting point. It gives you more information than you had, some basis for comparison."

Trinity College President James F. Jones Jr. said he was not surprised to hear the results, saying he has always thought that "one of the great selling points for this entire geographic region is the number of schools of all kinds that are in the metro Hartford area."

With cultural institutions like The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art and others, Jones said, as well as restaurants of many ethnic types and lots of opportunities for internships, "it is only logical" that the Hartford area would be considered "a huge college destination."

John Carson, vice president for university relations at the University of Hartford, said the metro area may not have the rural vistas of North Dakota or Iowa, but it has "many opportunities whether it's for artistic activities, cultural activities or doing internships at Fortune 100 or 500 corporations and ultimately getting recruited into these companies. That's what I think we can sell."

Vanessa Savard, a University of Hartford student who lives in a pod of housing for 170 students in downtown Hartford, off Market Street, said the area is "not good but not bad" as a college environment.

"There's not much in downtown to do unless you're 21 and can go to the bars," said Savard, a radiology major who is from northern Vermont, and hits 21 next month. "I have fun here," she said, adding that the townhouses are a great environment, "but I'd rather be like in Burlington (Vt.) or something like that."

At the University of Bridgeport, Mary-Jane Foster, vice president of university relations, said she is "delighted" by the survey results, and wrote in an e-mail: "Bridgeport, not unlike UB, has been underestimated and undervalued, but in the last 10 years, there has been significant redevelopment throughout the city."

Of course, not everyone is pleased with the rankings, and some have raised questions about the researchers' methods upon hearing that the New Haven area was ranked 18th in the small city category, well below Bridgeport, and with a significantly lower number rating for restaurants, recreational and cultural establishments per capita than Bridgeport. (The New Haven area was rated at 35.5 establishments per 100,000 people, compared to Bridgeport 62.2.)

Dorie Baker, a spokeswoman for Yale University, said, "I don't mean to denigrate Bridgeport, but I simply find it difficult to understand. . . . New Haven has so many resources. I wouldn't say no comment, but we don't have the time to ponder exactly what kind of criteria they were considering."

Sean Fraga, a Yale senior from Seattle, said he doesn't know much about other cities in the state, but has always found New Haven teeming with restaurants of all types and cultural and recreational opportunities.

"I love going to school in a city that is large enough to really offer a diverse array of things to do," Fraga said. "I can go to a Turkish restaurant or an Indian restaurant or a Thai restaurant. The variety of options and things to do is really astounding."

Rah, Rah Hartford!

These are the top three metro areas for college students, plus two other notable areas, in two categories set out by the American Institute for Economic Research. Numbers after each area show the number of students per 1,000 residents, one of several measures in the study.

Mid-Size Metro Areas

(1.0 to 2.5 million residents)

1. San Jose, Calif., 85

2. Austin, Texas, 86.4

3. Hartford, 82.0

5. Denver, Colo., 58.4

15. Providence, R.I., 85

Small Metro Areas

(250,000 to 1 million residents)

1. Boulder, Colo., 129.3

2. Bridgeport, 63.8

3. Ann Arbor, Mich., 190

5. Madison, Wis., 107.8

18. New Haven, 80

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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