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January 3, 2022

Grant program to outfit vacant Hartford retail/restaurant space draws immediate interest

HBJ PHOTO | STEVE LASCHEVER Alexandra Pilon, co-owner of the Bloom Bake Shop, serves up treats at a pop-up sale in a Pratt Street storefront the weekend before Christmas.

Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin’s offer of up to $150,000 in grants to prepare and outfit vacant ground-floor retail spaces for new businesses has drawn dozens of applicants.

Eighteen days after the Dec. 2 announcement of the program, 25 property owners had filed applications with the Hartford Chamber of Commerce, with 38 more beginning the process, according to Julio Concepcion, the chamber’s executive director.

The city is funding the program with $6 million of its $112 million American Rescue Plan Act allocation.

“I’m a little surprised and I’m really excited to see the number of people actually filling out these applications,” Concepcion said. “We are excited to see those numbers and we are continuing to push marketing of the program.”

Concepcion said the chamber is working to help applicants complete paperwork, and to match prospective businesses with landlords.

Interested businesses include a bridal shop, restaurants, barber shops, candle maker, live entertainment venue and dog groomer, among others, according to Concepcion. He anticipates the first grant approvals in early January, and some new shops opening in spring.

Pratt Street a target

Potential grant beneficiaries could include Bloom Bake Shop, an 18-month-old bakery looking to expand out of a small incubator space in the former Swift Factory.

Sisters Monica Beaudoin, 28, and Alexandra Pilon, 31, serve up muffins, cakes and other pastries made from scratch through online orders, farmers markets and pop-up events. They’re in negotiations to leave their roughly 1,000-square-foot spot in the Swift incubator for a storefront in the Pratt Street area with three times more space. There, the sisters will be able to serve walk-in customers and have dine-in tables.

Steve Laschever
Sisters Monica Beaudoin (right, standing) and Alexandra Pilon are the co-founders of Bloom Bake Shop.

“I think with the way the world is now, it is very difficult to start a food business,” Beaudoin said. “Without this grant opportunity making our money go much further, it wouldn’t be possible for us to do it right now.”

Pratt Street and the surrounding area are the focus of a $100 million redevelopment project. This will result in hundreds of new and refurbished apartments, 45,058 square feet of retail and about 1,000 parking spots for shoppers and residents.

“We are excited that we see a need in downtown Hartford,” Pilon said. “We know there are a lot of investments in apartments and a lot of people living downtown.”

Timothy Moore, an economic development specialist and founder of Blue Haus Group, said the Hart Lift Program is a “step in the right direction,” although he worries about the requirement for a three-year lease. That’s asking a lot of someone attempting a new venture, he said.

The program is a “good tool in the toolbox,” Moore said, but is no silver bullet. Downtown boosters will have to creatively pair it with other incentives and programs.

Jody Morneault — owner of upscale Hartford clothing store Stackpole Moore Tryon at the corner of Trumbull and Pratt streets — said Hart Lift will benefit big landlords and developers but will be hard for existing businesses to access.

Still, a rising tide of new businesses could help lift all shops, Morneault acknowledged. She’s rooting for the big landlords to fill their spaces, even connecting them to prospective tenants.

“Now that the funding has come through for the grants, I’m pretty sure the whole street will fill,” Morneault said.

Hartford-based developer Martin J. Kenny, who is one of the leading figures in the Pratt Street development, said he believes many prospective business owners were waiting for the incentive program before they signed leases. The concept began circulating this summer.

Kenny is part owner of hundreds of downtown apartments, along with significant blocks of commercial space.

“A lot of tenants we have been in discussion with have been waiting for this program to kick in,” Kenny said. “Having that resource will be critical.”

He said an ongoing influx of market-rate apartments in Hartford’s downtown needs restaurants, retail and entertainment to thrive.

Kenny said his company, Lexington Partners, is in talks with several prospective tenants, including restaurants and a coffee shop. He anticipates starting to outfit spaces for these tenants in the first quarter of this year.

“We need to get some of these restaurants we lost [during the pandemic] back with new operators,” Kenny said. “We need more entertainment, more music. And we need service retail too, to service the residents and the corporate workers that will be coming back soon, hopefully.”

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