Hartford, which Henry James once called "the richest little city in the country," has become one of the poorest of municipalities. Connecticut's capital doesn't need more social services, low-income housing or pity; it needs more business. As Sen. Christopher J. Dodd has said, a job is the best social program.
Moving into 2008, Mayor Eddie A. Perez should have one goal underpinning the city's agenda: economic development.
This will require a change in focus and management style on his part. He has jumped into everything from school building to public works to police. Perhaps he had to. But he now has department heads who can do those jobs. He should let Chief Operating Officer Lee C. Erdmann, Chief of Police Daryl K. Roberts, school Superintendent Steven J. Adamowski and others manage the day-to-day operations.
Mr. Perez should put his imagination and energy to best use building the local economy and getting Hartford residents involved in it. He cannot, like a modern King Canute, command the tides of international commerce that buffet the city's largest businesses. But a focused approach in areas where he can make a difference could reward the mayor and all residents with new economic activity and would reduce the city's mind-numbing 32 percent poverty rate.
• Thinking regionally. Hartford has spent too much time battling with suburban towns over where various companies would set up shop. The metropolitan region is the economic unit of the future. If we acted like a united region instead of a Balkanized one, we'd have some kind of agreement — perhaps with revenue-sharing — that would send companies to wherever it made the most sense for them to be (rather than letting communities bribe them with lucre).
Other than the stalwart MetroHartford Alliance, few have taken a regional approach to economic development. Perhaps it won't happen until there's meaningful property-tax reform, which requires state help. But it's worth getting in a room and trying.
The Park To Park joint marketing effort between the Parkville section of Hartford and Park Road in West Hartford is a small but meaningful step in the right direction.
• Redefining the relationship with the state. A prosperous capital city is in everyone's best interest. The state could redefine the Capital City Economic Development Authority, which built the Connecticut Convention Center and other Six Pillars projects, so that the state can remain involved and investing in development projects. Right now CCDEA is limited to acting as owner, for the state, of the convention center, a small utility plant and some 3,000 parking spaces. The state and city could work together, for example, to produce an arts corridor running from the Capitol to Main Street. The state could also bring back to the city some of its jobs now in office parks along I-91. No, this wouldn't bring more taxes to city coffers, but it would bring more feet onto Hartford's streets and more supporting businesses.
A strong partnership also would ensure that state job-training programs correspond to actual jobs — sometimes an issue — and that inmates coming out of prisons have employment opportunities so they don't end up in homeless shelters in Hartford, New Haven and other cities. Mr. Perez has sometimes had a contentious relationship with state officials. That is counterproductive; the state ought to be his new best friend.
• Developing mass-transit opportunities. The state is finally beginning to encourage development around transit stops. Seize the opportunity for mixed-income housing around Hartford's Union Station. With the clubs and restaurants already there, it's important to efforts to establish better commuter rail service and to develop a busway on target.
This could be a hot neighborhood for young professionals. Establishing convenient, frequent transportation services is essential to allowing workers to move easily to jobs in the city or suburbs. The city should also push as hard as it can for high-speed rail service to New York and eventually to Boston. That would change Hartford for the better.
• Supporting school initiatives. Keep up the momentum in redefining the way city schools work to help all students reach state academic goals. The city should support Mr. Adamowski's plans to divide high school students into smaller academies and to reconstitute schools that fall short. Students should see graduation from high school as a minimum step and, in most cases, should follow Mr. Perez's goal of going on to higher education. For prospective employers, having an education system that graduates students ready to join the workforce is vital. For economic and residential development, a strong school system is crucial.
• Using tax policy to encourage highest use of land. As is clear to anyone walking through downtown Hartford, there are too many empty spaces. Too much of this historic and attractive city has been sacrificed for surface parking. If downtown is to again achieve a healthy urban density, those spaces have to be filled.
One way to encourage that result would be a change in how property taxes are levied. At present, the city taxes buildings at a much higher rate than it taxes land. This has encouraged owners to tear down buildings to save on tax bills — and it is one reason The Hartford is considering razing the former MassMutual building for a parking lot. Perhaps it might reconsider, if the city changed its policy so that the land is more heavily taxed, as has been done in Harrisburg and some other Pennsylvania cities. This motivates developers to get the most out of their property by building on it.
Mr. Perez previously supported a split-rate property tax system in which land could be taxed at a higher rate than buildings. He should do so again. Perhaps a slide show of the Parkview Hilton, Mad Murphy's and other buildings torn down to save taxes might help sell the idea.
Restoring Hartford to be the city that drew such high praise from Henry James requires a sustained effort. There is no one big-bang project that will transform the city. A 10-member panel of experts from the Urban Land Institute, a nonprofit organization that specializes in land-use policy, visited Hartford early last fall and reinforced that point. The group suggested dropping the idea for a new sports arena and instead recommended revamping the XL Center (formerly the Hartford Civic Center). A new arena would be nice, but the energy and resources needed to build it would be better used on other projects that draw the city and region together.
The institute panel recommended building a linear park across the North End, from Albany Avenue and Main Street east to the Connecticut River. Such a park, which recalls the "rain of parks" proposal a century ago to surround downtown with parks and parkways, would improve the ambience of that part of downtown.
Even as Mr. Perez works on the big pieces of the economic puzzle, there are other ideas that will contribute to sustaining Hartford's renaissance:
• Reusing brownfields. Adriaen's Landing, the Learning Corridor and other projects in the city — as well as major projects around the state such as Blue Back Square in West Hartford and the Pfizer research center in New London — were made possible because the sites of these developments were cleaned of contaminants. Removing the residue of earlier uses is an essential step in the reuse of the built environment — a requisite of smart growth. Hartford has remediation projects in progress at a few sites, including Front Street. The city should appoint a brownfield coordinator who could go after funds and otherwise move an aggressive program to clean up more development sites.
• Going green. In addition to developing a comprehensive green plan for buildings, vehicles and other facilities, Mr. Perez and the city council should lead an effort to attract green businesses. This is a burgeoning, $341-billion-a-year industry, which includes manufacturing with recycled materials, installing solar panels and green roofs, and sustainable landscaping. Somebody's going to grab the "green collar" jobs, which, as Trenton, N.J., Mayor Douglas Palmer recently told USA Today, have potential to move people out of poverty.
• Developing events. The city needs to work with the Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Arts Council to develop a first-class special events operation. Cities are about excitement, spontaneity, imagination. Hartford needs to broaden its entertainment options.
• Creating a retail incubator. Downtown still lacks an adequate retail base. Many retailers are reluctant to locate there, uncertain whether the customer base is worth the risk. Downtown housing is filling up, helping on that front. What if the city could also lower the risk to businesses?
An idea being tried in some communities around the country, called a retail incubator, puts a lot of small retailers in the same building, where they can share costs and customers.
• Developing around hospitals. It is incredible that there are a few empty buildings around the Hartford Hospital campus. The city and state must do a better job of leveraging the presence of great medical institutions into more economic activity.
• Getting Westbrook Village right. The aged housing project near the University of Hartford needs renewal. If it were developed as a multiuse university village, it would be a boon to the school and the Upper Albany/Blue Hills neighborhoods.
This list is not exhaustive. In a real sense, everything government does should be geared toward economic development. Government is there to create the environment — with security, utilities, roads, public art and amenities, services — in which workers and companies can prosper. Government is not a substitute for work; government is an enabler of work. Mr. Perez must make it clear that this is what Hartford is after.
What will success look like? For several years, various officials have tried to portray chain pharmacies and doughnut shops as economic development. Those are fine — except when historic buildings are demolished to make way for them — but they aren't the high-impact commerce the city needs. Businesses that increase exports, create good jobs, pay real taxes — that's Hartford's goal for 2008.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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