September 17, 2012

CRDA moving quickly on housing mission

Photo / Steve Laschever
Photo / Steve Laschever
Suzanne Hopgood, chair of the Capital Region Development Authority, says housing comes first but the group is looking at other funding needs.
Photo / Pablo Robles
The vacant office tower at 777 Main St., once home to Bank of America, is awaiting its conversion to housing.
Pamela Trotman Reid, president, University of St. Joseph

The newly minted Capital Region Development Authority has met just a few times, but is already off to a fast start in making some key decisions about the future of economic development for Greater Hartford.

The quasi-public agency, which was established by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and state lawmakers this year to better coordinate economic development for the region, has already set aside $17.7 million for a major downtown Hartford housing project; targeted a new executive director; and launched a fact finding mission on the future use of major venues, including the XL Center.

Suzanne Hopgood, who was appointed by Malloy to chair CRDA, said housing and venue development are the top two priorities of the new organization and they are moving ahead with their mission to add 2,000 new housing units in downtown Hartford.

The agency recently set aside $17.7 million to help fund the conversion of the iconic 777 Main St. office tower in the heart of Hartford's central business district into apartments. The investment will be in addition to the $5 million in state incentives that the $79 million project has already received. The build out will yield 286 apartment units.

Hopgood said the apartment conversion still has some issues that need to be sorted out, but it is at the top of the priority list for new housing in the city. Additionally, in a CRDA meeting slated for later this month, Hartford and East Hartford officials are expected to unveil a list of housing projects at the top of their wish list, Hopgood said.

After that, CRDA will decide how to allocate the $60 million it has been given by the state to invest in housing projects.

"We want to facilitate the mayor's agenda," Hopgood said.

CRDA has also pinpointed a new executive director, who will indirectly replace James Abromaitis. Abromaitis was the head of CRDA's predecessor organization, the Capital City Economic Development Authority, which has been disbanded.

Hopgood would not disclose the name of the new executive director because a contract has not yet been signed. But she said the board has chosen a candidate from the approximately 350 applications that were received. She said the board whittled that pool down to five finalists who were from New York, Ohio, Michigan and Connecticut.

She said CRDA expects to announce the new executive director by the end of the year. The executive director will wield significant power and ultimately take decisions that need to be made by CRDA "over the goal line," Hopgood said.

"Right now the board is gathering intelligence so the executive director has all the information needed to make informed decisions," Hopgood said.

The CRDA was established during the 2012 legislative session and is responsible for stimulating new investment and diversifying the economy in and around Hartford.

It has the authority to pursue development and redevelopment of property and housing. Its mission also includes attracting conventions and trade shows, increasing tourism, and building collaborative relationships with existing businesses, city leaders, and cultural organizations.

So far lawmakers have allocated $60 million for CRDA to invest in housing projects, but Hopgood said that money likely will not go far enough to create the desired 2,000 new housing units. If and when the quasi-public organization needs more money, it will need to get legislative approval.

Another top priority for CRDA will be overseeing and managing key venues in Greater Hartford including the Adriaen's Landing District, Rentschler Field, and the XL Center, Hopgood said. The authority will also collaborate with cultural and entertainment venues — like the Wadsworth Atheneum, the Bushnell and the iQuilt project — and engage in strategic planning with Hartford and surrounding communities.

CRDA board members are visiting and touring many of the key venues right now to gain an understanding of how they are managed and operated so they can better coordinate marketing and venue development to attract new business, Hopgood said.

A key decision will be deciding the fate of the XL Center. The arena is owned by the city of Hartford but leased to the Connecticut Development Authority. That lease is set to expire next year at a crucial time for the arena.

Most experts and officials agree the XL Center is in need of a makeover, but deciding what type of renovation and how much to spend remains a big question.

CRDA will ultimately make the decision.

Hopgood said one of the strengths of CRDA is the diversity of its 13-member board, which includes the Hartford and East Hartford mayors as well as commissioners from key state agencies such as transportation and economic development.

Other key members appointed to the board include Andy Bessette, executive vice president and chief administrative office of the Travelers Companies; David Jorgensen, a financial advisor at Morgan Stanley Smith Barney; and Pamela Trotman Reid, president of the University of St. Joseph.

With this board, CRDA will be more inclusive than CCEDA, and ensure many diverse voices within the region are heard, Hopgood said.

"We don't want to adopt solutions to problems that don't exist," Hopgood said. "With this board there is not much of a chance you are going to go wandering off a cliff."

One of the interesting committees already formed by the CRDA board is a "state agency relocation committee." Hopgood said its goal will be to assist the state with its expected acquisition of downtown Hartford property, an initiative that has been in the works for more than a year.

The state has been looking at several significant downtown Hartford office buildings, including Connecticut River Plaza and 55 Farmington Ave., with the expected intention of eventually buying them and moving state workers into them. One of the byproducts would be to generate more foot traffic in the city.

But the committee will also work to try to recruit state colleges to open campuses downtown, to expand on the vision of making Hartford more of a college town. It's one of the reasons Trotman Reid, head of the University of St. Joseph, which recently opened its pharmacy school in downtown Hartford, has been chosen to head that committee, Hopgood said.

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