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Hartford Mayor Has Made Progress, But Needs Economic Vision

Hartford Courant Editorial

June 26, 2011

Pedro E. Segarra did not have a hard act to follow. He became Hartford's 66th mayor a year ago following the resignation of Eddie Perez, who was convicted on felony corruption charges. Anyone with sense would have quickly distanced himself from the influence peddling, profligate spending and general arrogance of the Perez administration, and Mr. Segarra did.

He hadn't sought the office, but as city council president he was, by charter, next in line. Mr. Segarra took a deep breath and set four goals: to ensure accountability; safeguard the health, cleanliness and safety of the city; create jobs and improve education; and pursue opportunities to accelerate and expand economic vitality.

He celebrated a year in office Saturday having moved the ball in some of these areas. Mr. Segarra has come across as intelligent, honest, sincere and worthy of trust. He has reached out to the business community and the neighborhoods, among other constituencies, and is a good listener.

For example, when residents at public meetings held in conjunction with the "One City, One Plan" project last year expressed concern about city parks, Mr. Segarra created a vigorous volunteer program to clean the parks. He was right; parks are a key component of the city's quality of life and had been given short shrift in the past.

Mr. Segarra, his staff and the council also managed to stop the decade-long increase in city spending, and resolve potential deficits this year without raising taxes. Though that still leaves the city with the region's highest commercial mill rate a serious business disincentive it's a definite step in the right direction.

Also, he has a couple of major initiatives planned to reduce gun violence (as well as domestic violence) in the city. This too is essential; the city must be safe if it is to prosper.

Social-Service View Won't Do

Now Mr. Segarra has to swing for the stars, to achieve what the first President Bush called "the vision thing."

Mr. Segarra initially wasn't going to seek a full term in office this fall; his intention was to serve as a conscientious caretaker. Now that he has decided to run, he needs to think differently.

Mr. Segarra has been a social worker as well as a lawyer in his professional career, and sometimes takes a social-service view of his job. Not to diminish that important role, but Hartford has an abundance of social-service agencies and workers. What the city doesn't have enough of are entrepreneurs and jobs.

Hartford has the state's highest unemployment rate, 16.3 percent in May. The city desperately needs employment for people who aren't social workers. As former Sen. Chris Dodd said, the best social-service program is a job.

Take A Lesson

To make that happen, Mr. Segarra needs to get out of his comfort zone and articulate a big-picture economic vision for the city, something that will excite residents and inspire investment. For example:

In the late 1970s, Indianapolis was on its heels. City leaders decided to use sports as a marketing and economic development tool. It worked; the Pan-Am Games as well as a number of Final Fours and Monday Night Football games helped fuel the city's revival.

Fort Wayne, Ind., pushed high-tech entrepreneurship in collaboration with local universities.

Grand Rapids, Mich., adapted to the loss of residential furniture manufacturing by modernizing plants and shifting to commercial furniture. The city also focuses on new small businesses, and created a whole new health care sector.

Mr. Segarra needs to form partnerships and find such a vision for Hartford. It could involve recruiting insurance or financial services businesses into now-empty downtown office buildings. He could renew his push to get more of the UConn Health Center project in Hartford and use that to jumpstart a medical technology sector. It could mean actually building a factory, in partnership with the state and private sector, that makes something the state needs, such as railroad ties.

If all goes well, there will be infrastructure jobs coming on rail and busway projects as well as the hoped-for removal of the I-84 Viaduct. But construction jobs are by nature temporary; Hartford needs a push toward permanent jobs.

Shortly after he took office, Mr. Segarra had the star-crossed "Butt Ugly Building" demolished, and is going after another prominent eyesore, the Capital West building near I-84. That's fine, but demolition is only half the answer. He needs to say what he's going to build.

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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