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September 4, 2023

Fonfara: Reducing poverty, workforce development key to Hartford’s future growth

HBJ PHOTO | GREG BORDONARO State Sen. and Hartford mayoral candidate John Fonfara sits down with the Hartford Business Journal to discuss his vision for the city’s future.

Longtime state Sen. John Fonfara said he’s running for mayor of Hartford because he’s witnessed the city get poorer over the last decade.

The cornerstone of his vision is to reduce poverty and increase opportunity by reforming and investing more in education and job training. He also wants to support development and business growth to boost the grand list.

“If I asked the average Hartford resident what they’re concerned about, it’s blight, roads, crime, gun violence and empty storefronts,” he said. “All those issues are symptoms of our poverty. High taxes are a symptom of our poverty — we can’t raise the revenue or grow the grand list, which leads to us being unable to support the kinds of services the city needs. And the default is, the state should do more. But the focus in City Hall has to be on reducing our poverty. I see too many neighborhoods of Hartford continuing to decline, get poorer.”

Hartford has the poorest population in the state, with a median household income of $37,477, and 28.4% of its 121,000 residents 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, Census data shows.

Reducing poverty, Fonfara said, is a key part of his economic development strategy because businesses won’t invest in areas dominated by underskilled residents with little buying power.

He gave Franklin Avenue, a once bustling commercial corridor with restaurants, storefronts and other businesses, as an example of the city’s decline. He said the poverty rate in the northern part of Franklin Avenue has grown exponentially in the last 10 years, and it’s reflected now in the businesses that are there.

“In what used to be a restaurant on Franklin Avenue is now a dollar store, nail salon, or a cell phone store,” he said. “That’s because businesses will always chase the customer. They’ll go to where the customer is, or they’ll change what they’re selling to serve the customer that is available.”

Fonfara, 67, said his administration would take a more active role in influencing education policies, rather than leaving it largely to the board of education. To do that, he would create offices of education and workforce development within City Hall.

The goal, he said, would be to invest in programs and resources that get more children into preschool and more kids reading by third grade — milestones that are key to determining future success.

The city also needs to significantly increase the percentage of high school students who are ready for college or a career, so Hartford can serve as a feeder system to major employers like Hartford and St. Francis hospitals, Travelers, The Hartford and others.

In addition, he said the city needs to invest more in job training by leveraging workforce development funding available on the state and federal levels.

The city should also better embrace A.I. Prince Technical High School and encourage kids not destined for college to pursue trades that offer well-paying jobs.

Fonfara said he’s also pro-development, including in downtown, but more investment needs to be made in the neighborhoods.

Property tax reforms

Fonfara, who has led fundraising efforts since the start of the campaign, is one of three leading Democratic candidates in the mayor’s race. He and current Hartford Land Bank CEO Arunan Arulampalam are the front-runners.

Former state senator and retired judge Eric Coleman will also be on the ballot.

Mike McGarry, a former city councilor and publisher, is running as the GOP candidate in the heavily-Democratic city.

Fonfara is a lifelong Hartford resident who grew up and lives in the city’s south end. He went to Hartford Public Schools, and then UConn and Trinity College, where he earned a master’s degree in public policy.

He’s been in the state Senate for more than a quarter-century, and currently co-chairs the powerful Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee, where he said he has fought for city funding, including tens of millions of dollars to support downtown development through the Capital Region Development Authority (CRDA).

He was a key architect of the state’s volatility cap, which has been given credit for stabilizing state finances, including building up the rainy day fund. The cap, adopted in response to a series of crippling budget deficits last decade, requires revenues above a certain threshold to be set aside for budget reserves.

Fonfara has also tried to reform the state’s property tax system, which he said “defeats the incentive to grow and invest.”

Hartford has been hamstrung by the highest property tax rate in the state, at 68.95 mills.

He led the passage and expansion of an unusual property-tax pilot program that allows a municipality, with state permission, to assess real and personal property taxes on commercial parcels based on the net profits of a building’s business occupants, rather than by the fair market value of the property itself.

The goal of the program, Fonfara said, is to encourage new development. However, no municipality has ever used it.

“I believe lessening the reliance on the property tax is a growth initiative that would lead to a massive infusion of development in Hartford and across the state,” he said.

Here’s what else Fonfara had to say. The Q&A was edited for length and clarity.

What industries do you see as the drivers of Hartford’s future economic growth?

A. Connecticut has some of the oldest companies in the country. But it’s young businesses that are the drivers of job growth.

Back in 2016, I embarked on an initiative to grow Hartford’s innovation and entrepreneurship corridor, which I think is crucial to future growth.

We established CTNext (an organization that promotes innovation and entrepreneurship) and created Innovation Places in Hartford, Stamford, New Haven and New London to support a startup environment.

In Hartford, that led to the creation of accelerators to support insurtech and medical technology companies.

The pandemic hurt some of that progress, but we need to create a sense that the city is a place where young people from UConn or even Yale can come with their ideas.

The mayor can be a leader in promoting the attractiveness of startups to come here.

There’s also opportunity in manufacturing, and I got funding for two walk-in manufacturing centers in the city, where people can go and be introduced to the basics of manufacturing.

What should the city do about empty office space?

A. I have supported downtown development, including millions and millions of dollars for the CRDA for the conversion of buildings from commercial to residential.

We know there are more vacancies coming with leases set to expire, so we have to respond to that now and not wait until it happens in the next two years, because that will impact our mill rate.

We need to take steps to increase the value of these buildings that will impact our grand list and mill rate.

I also hope that the governor and labor relax the position that allows state workers to work from home most of the time. Particularly for young people, when they work from home, they lose the opportunity to learn, in the way that the office provides.

I also put forward an initiative that didn’t pass this session to give more space to startups in our empty office buildings.

The city relies on tax abatements to spur a lot of private development. Is that a practice you would continue?

A. Short term, it’s necessary. Long term, I’m hoping we get the city to a place where we are in such high demand, we won’t have to do that. The bottom line is we have to do everything possible to reduce that mill rate if we are going to be competitive as a city.

The Bronin administration has focused a lot of its attention on spurring market rate apartment development. Is that the right strategy?

A. We have to have a better balance of housing in our city. We will always take the neediest and poorest residents.

I embrace that responsibility. But we need to have a balance because when we concentrate poverty, the effects of that are gun violence, crime and disinvestment.

We have more affordable, low-income housing than anywhere in the state. We have to create a mix of housing in neighborhoods.

How do you plan to handle the ongoing litigation with the development around Dunkin’ Park?

A. I supported the stadium. There weren’t many politicians, including the current mayor, who did support it. But I did.

And I think it’s been a great success. There are people coming into our city now, spending their money here, who otherwise don’t ever come.

But we have to build on that.

I haven’t been part of the discussions on the litigation, but I’m hoping that we can get past it in a way that allows us to continue the momentum of the development around the stadium.

How important is the XL Center to Hartford? Is the proposed $107 million renovation enough to make the venue more attractive to concerts and other events?

A. The XL Center is of huge importance to Hartford. I wish we could build a new arena, but this governor has been reluctant. He did support this latest iteration of investment, which is a good start.

Should Brainard Airport be closed, so the surrounding land can be redeveloped into some other use?

A. I pushed for the study to examine the value of the property as it is currently used, and also what the opportunities are if it weren’t an airport.

That study will come back in October.

Maybe the study comes back and says that the airport has great value. If it does, you’ll never hear from me again, other than just to support the airport to make it everything it could be.

But, I believe the opportunities that exist there, the 200 acres abutting the Connecticut River, are phenomenal for new development, for recreation, housing, commercial development or shopping.

How would you improve the city’s regulatory environment?

A. I think it is critically important that our permitting process be revamped. I want to see permits being given in two weeks time, not two or three months, which some developers say is happening.

That prevents investment from being made in the city.

Do you have ambitions for higher office?

A. I’m not using this as a stepping stone. This is my last rodeo. And I’m not doing it for glory, and I’m not doing it for attention.

I could stay in the Senate, do another two or three terms. But I see my city getting poorer. I see opportunity being lost.

I don’t want to look back on my time in government and public service, and say I could have done more, but I chose not to.

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