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May 5, 2022

Hartford’s Front Street arts and entertainment district stirring from COVID-19 doldrums

HBJ PHOTO | MICHAEL PUFFER Melanie Cruz, an employee at Bear’s Smokehouse in Hartford, rings up patrons during the Friday lunch rush on April 29.

Customers poured through the doors of Bear’s Smokehouse for a 90-minute lunch break during the Mary Kay cosmetics convention at the nearby Connecticut Convention Center in March.

“We had three to four hundred come in that hour-and-a-half,” said Tyler Burrill, director of operations for the restaurant. “This place was packed.”

That’s a refreshing difference from the past couple years, when COVID-19 shut down entertainment venues that fed restaurants and shops in the Front Street District.

Business owners and Hartford economic development boosters say Front Street, like much of the city’s downtown core, is starting to pull out of the COVID-19 doldrums as events, conventions and office workers return in greater numbers.

Bear’s was forced to lay off most of its staff in the early days of the pandemic and run with a skeleton crew of seven serving up takeout orders. Now, the restaurant is back up to its usual complement of 30 to 40 workers, Burrill said.

“We are back fully staffed and ready to go,” Burrill said. “It’s definitely getting back to where it was. The lunch crowds are getting back as businesses are coming back to their offices. Happy hour has made a big comeback, really in the last month-and-a-half. And conventions are coming back, and shows are coming back.”

Available space seeing interest

The pandemic did negatively impact Front Street — about a third of its 110,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space is currently vacant, according to the Capital Region Development Authority (CRDA).

A few spaces went dark during the past two years, including most notably the closure of Ted’s Montana Grill.

The state poured well over $200 million into redeveloping Front Street, partnering with Greenwich-based HB Nitkin Group to create a new home for the University of Connecticut’s Hartford branch; shopping and entertainment venues; and 175 apartments along a block of streets with new lighting, sidewalks and underground infrastructure.

Michael Freimuth, CRDA’s executive director, said the district’s apartments are more than 95% occupied. He said he’s also aware of talks with businesses that could see retail vacancies filled.

HB Nitkin Group and its broker did not respond to requests for comment.

Nitkin sold the Front Street Lofts — a 121-unit luxury apartment complex with ground-floor retail — for $35.3 million in March. The buyers were investors from Lakewood, New Jersey, with a growing Connecticut portfolio.

Corporate return felt

Major employers including Travelers Cos., CVS Health and others announced plans to reopen Hartford corporate offices to employees beginning in March. Most are operating on a hybrid basis, meaning workers come in for only part of the week.

“They’re encouraging people to be in at least a few days a week if they can right now,” said Don Tardif, one of seven Travelers’ staff eating at a table outside Bear’s just after noon on April 29. “I think there’s a mixed result. I think some people appreciate it and other people are a little bit more cautious about it. But they do a good job of keeping us trying to feel good about coming back into the office.”

Hartford has experienced a palpable sense of increased vitality since March, when companies began encouraging returns to offices, Mayor Luke Bronin said.

“The city felt hollow without thousands and thousands of people who are normally here every day,” Bronin said. “But I’m optimistic. Even over the last couple of months you can feel a meaningful change in the city in the number of feet on the street, in the activity, as more and more firms, large and small, bring employees back — even if it’s just for a few days a week.”

David Griggs, CEO of the MetroHartford Alliance, said lunch crowds in Hartford have grown enough to sustain restaurants, but not as true money-making vehicles.

People are just starting to return, but Griggs said he is optimistic that a string of coming restaurants will put Hartford on the map as a dining destination.

Bars, restaurants and eateries account for 16 of 25 businesses taking part in the city’s new “Hart Lift” grant program, which provides matching grants of up to $150,000 to help outfit new or expanding retail and restaurant spaces. The Hartford Chamber of Commerce has awarded nearly $2.5 million of the program’s $6 million fund.

So far, no deals have been announced for Front Street.

Even so, Griggs said he is upbeat about the entertainment district’s prospects, noting the Infinity Music Hall has reopened, marking a return of concerts. He visited the district’s Apple Cinema movie theater recently and saw it packed.

“It’s great for Hartford we have all these wonderful pockets that can be developed,” Griggs said. “Activity is happening in all of them. I think the infrastructure of the Front Street area is top-notch and it is ready for great development. It’s primed. It’s ready to go. We just have to get a little further out of the pandemic.”

Rikki Catalano, a manager at Apple Cinema, said crowds are growing, although that has more to do with recent releases of Spiderman and Batman movies. Catalano is also a stagehand, so she’s happy to see live performance venues reopen.

The reopening of the city isn’t all good news for Catalano. Traffic is getting a lot thicker on her commute from Cromwell on Interstate 91.

The bumper of her Nissan Altima is loose after she was recently rear-ended on Interstate 91 on her way to work.

“Every day is like that, avoiding these little fender-benders,” she said. “People starting and stopping, starting and stopping. It’s like playing Frogger on the road.”

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