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September 4, 2023 Editor’s Take

Bordonaro: Next Hartford mayor needs a vision for city’s future

Tourism Economics The Hartford skyline.

Where’s Hartford headed? What’s the vision to make the city the bustling metropolis it could and should be?

What industries and companies will lead Hartford’s future job growth? How do we tame gun violence, reduce poverty and improve the education system?

These are key questions Hartford voters should contemplate before they head to the polls on Sept. 12, for an important primary election.

That vote in this heavily Democratic city will determine Hartford’s new mayor for the next four years.

Three Democrats have emerged as leading mayoral candidates: longtime state Sen. John Fonfara, Hartford Land Bank CEO Arunan Arulampalm and former state Sen. and retired judge Eric Coleman.

Arunan Arulampalm
John Fonfara
Eric Coleman

Fonfara and Arulampalam are the front-runners, vying for the seat being vacated by current Mayor Luke Bronin, who chose not to run for a third term.

Hartford Business Journal doesn’t endorse political candidates. It never has. It’s the voters who ought to decide who their next leader is.

Hopefully, voters will favor a pro-business candidate who supports policies that make Hartford an attractive place for private-sector investment and growth.

Hartford remains mired in a slow-moving, post-pandemic recovery and faces daunting challenges ranging from high office vacancies to gun violence.

Here are some key issues that voters and the candidates should consider:

Economic development

Much of the attention in recent years has been focused on downtown Hartford, which is not new. Downtown must be the vibrant, beating heart if the city’s neighborhoods are going to thrive.

Unfortunately, the pandemic took a toll on downtown, with many corporate employers embracing hybrid and remote work.

About 30% of downtown office space is currently available, according to CBRE.

Investment in downtown housing must continue, including conversion of more underutilized offices into apartments.

The next mayor must continue to support the Capital Region Development Authority, which is responsible for many of the recent housing projects in Hartford, thanks to the low-interest gap financing it offers to developers.

Developer tax-break deals must also remain in play, at least until the city’s tax rate can be lowered to a reasonable level. The next mayor must have a plan to make that happen.

The move to transform downtown Hartford into more of a residential neighborhood is a wise one, but that alone isn’t the answer. Hartford must also be a place where people come to work and play.

Downtown needs its empty storefronts to come back to life. It needs more restaurants and entertainment. Growing Hartford’s already vibrant arts and culture scene should be a priority.

And the city needs to figure out where future jobs are coming from.

CVS Health’s recent announcement that it’s cutting more than 500 jobs in or connected to Hartford is the latest wake-up call that old-line corporate employers, which Hartford has depended on for decades, won’t drive the city’s future growth.

Last year, other major insurers, including UnitedHealthcare and Prudential, announced they were giving up a combined 518,000 square feet of office space in Hartford.

The city needs new blood and must target small to midsize companies that see value in a vibrant urban environment. But it doesn’t feel like Hartford has a well-coordinated plan to make that happen.

Pre-pandemic, there was a public-private partnership push to attract insurtech and medtech startups to the city. Although pockets of activity still exist, that effort has lost steam.

The next mayor will need a strong economic development strategy and team that does more than shepherd projects through the approval pipeline. The mayor will need a team that can provide an updated economic vision, and then partner with the private sector to see it realized.

Upskilling residents

Reducing poverty and workforce development are two key, closely linked issues.

Hartford has the poorest population in the state, with a median household income of $37,477. Of its 121,000 residents, 28.4% live in poverty, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

By comparison, Connecticut has a median household income of $83,572, with 10.1% of the state’s 3.6 million residents in poverty, according to the Census Bureau.

Reducing poverty must be part of any economic development strategy. Businesses don’t invest in areas dominated by underskilled residents with little buying power.

Given Hartford’s small size — only 17 to 18 square miles — its current concentration of poverty is crippling, curbing the city’s ability to grow its grand list, which has led to an excessively high commercial property tax rate (68.95 mills).

A small, vibrant downtown will have limited economic impact if it’s surrounded by pockets of destitution.

That’s why workforce development, an improved education system and investments in the city’s neighborhoods are also crucial.

Given Hartford’s fiscal restraints, tackling poverty in any meaningful way requires a public-private partnership on a grand scale. It requires tapping state and federal resources and getting buy-in from the business community.

And it’s not just about throwing money at problems, but investing limited resources in effective programs and services.

Most importantly, the city’s next mayor needs to be a relationship- and consensus-builder with a big vision for the future, and a realistic plan to drive the city closer to it.

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