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McMahon looks to revive CT's downtowns

BY John Stearns

1/15/2018
HBJ Photo | John Stearns
HBJ Photo | John Stearns
Long-time economic development official Patrick McMahon's new role as CEO of the Connecticut Main Street Center is similar to past jobs in which he promoted town centers.

Patrick McMahon

CEO, Connecticut Main Street Center Inc.


Highest education: Joint degree in law and master’s in public administration, University of Connecticut, 1996.


Executive insights: Collaboration and finding the appropriate partners. Working in partnership with other like-minded organizations, your ability to make lasting and substantial change is greater.

Patrick McMahon wants to help downtowns throughout Connecticut come alive — and he's in a good position to do that.

McMahon, who became CEO of Connecticut Main Street Center Inc. (CMSC) in August after about 20 years working in community and economic development in the towns of Suffield, Windsor and Windsor Locks, is promoting CMSC's tools and connections to towns and cities statewide to help spark that rejuvenation.

"Our goal is to inspire great Connecticut downtowns," McMahon said of the statewide nonprofit founded in 1999 and led its first 17 years by John Simone.

Simone, who retired last year, worked often with McMahon, including on a coalition urging the legislature to pass tax increment financing (TIF) language in 2015 making it easier for all towns to exploit the economic development tool.

McMahon understands, embraces and believes in the Main Street concept, which requires a strong public-private partnership to build and manage a collective vision for downtown, Simone said.

"He lives and breathes downtown stuff and he truly understands it from the inside out," Simone said.

McMahon heads CMSC during heightened attention on downtowns statewide, including Hartford's myriad redevelopment efforts and transit-oriented development projects around the new CTrail Hartford Line in towns like Meriden and Windsor Locks.

"There's a focus throughout the country on a return to downtown and it really comes down to market forces," McMahon said.

Millennials and empty-nesters are fueling much of the town-center push, he said. They seek experiences in walkable areas where they can easily access restaurants, parks, nightlife, stores and culture, whether in large cities or small town centers.

People are immersed in a digital world, McMahon added, pointing to his smartphone, but "every once in a while, we just need to spend time with other human beings, that sort of human factor, and I think downtowns really do provide that opportunity."

CMSC wants to help invigorate downtowns as places to live, work and play, while creating new tax revenues. Downtowns are smart places to grow with their existing infrastructure, roads and utilities — a factor in Connecticut Light & Power, now Eversource Energy, founding what was then the Connecticut Main Street Program in 1995. CL&P ran it until spinning off CMSC as a nonprofit in 1999 to grow the program with public and private support.

"Part of it was because their infrastructure was already in place and they felt an organization such as Connecticut Main Street would be able to build new business growth that would help their business as well," McMahon said.

Eversource remains a vital CMSC investor, providing free office space and other services in its Sheldon Street building in downtown Hartford, $85,000 in annual financial support and a representative on CMSC's board.

CMSC relies on private contributions, state grants and dues from member towns ranging from $500 to $1,500 annually to support its roughly $600,000 budget and 4 employees. It's working with the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving this month on communicating its mission and diversifying its revenue stream.

CMSC has 75 member communities representing about 1.9 million residents, but McMahon wants to expand that network.

Agenda and advocacy

CMSC again this year will advocate for legislators to double the annual state historic tax credit cap from $32 million to $64 million. The credits are a critical layer in project funding, or "lasagna financing" (coined by Simone) to advance historic preservation projects and leverage private funding, McMahon said.

With $32 million prescribed this fiscal year, developers must wait for the next annual allocation of state historic tax credits, he said, slowing projects' advancement.

CMSC also can advocate for towns' individual projects, sharing redevelopment opportunities with CMSC's network of architects, engineers, and developers.

"We're really trying to be that matchmaker," McMahon said.

That reach can extend nationally, too. CMSC highlighted transit-oriented development opportunities along the Hartford Line to mixed-use developers in a webinar Jan. 10.

CMSC also can advise towns on establishing TIF and business improvement districts, and facade programs.

It also helps communities understand interconnectivity, McMahon said of their need to work on parks, housing, small and large businesses, design, how buildings interact with streets, etc.

For all his love of downtowns, McMahon loves wide-open spaces, particularly national parks. Yellowstone and Grand Teton are on his itinerary this summer with his son, 15, and daughter, 12.

The youthful-looking McMahon, who turns 50 in May, stays fit running, biking and swimming. He hasn't done a triathlon, but has peddled the Pan-Mass Challenge four times and run marathons and ultramarathons. He's also done the Rocky 50K, a 31-miler through Philadelphia sites featured in "Rocky" movies.

The lyrics in a Rocky soundtrack, "Getting strong now," could represent McMahon's vision for Connecticut downtowns.