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Hartford today stands at a tipping point: Bankruptcy? Revival? Or both? No matter what happens, a longstanding undercurrent of negative “alternate facts” and misperceptions affect the outcome. As a former suburban high school teacher, it shocked me that few of my students had ever been in Hartford. A bad sign; personal involvement in the city can turn these attitudes around.
The relationship between a community's success and its positive self-image is well established. But the surprise is that a community's positive self-image is the cause, not the result, of its success. As noted author and civil rights attorney Bryan Stephenson challenged us during a recent Hartford visit, “if you're not feeling hopeful, then you're part of the problem.”
Hartford has abundant creativity, opportunities and solutions to address its problems and achieve its potential. But defeating negative perceptions can and must occur.
Perhaps the most common misperception is that Hartford totters on bankruptcy through its own fault. The facts belie this “truth.” Hartford's fiscal challenges result mostly from its unusually small size and inordinate amount of tax-exempt properties. Parks, government, education and nonprofit organizations fill 60 percent of its 18 square miles. Revenue from the remaining grand-list properties cannot support city services for residents, businesses and the commuter workforce.
Another attitude, common on social media, is that Hartford's glory days are past. While the past was indeed glorious, and many of Hartford's assets are among the most historic in Connecticut and the nation, experiencing the present reality can change perceptions.
Hartford's cultural and entertainment strengths are abundant, but in this “Land of Steady Habits,” effective self-promotion has come late. The city boasts the world's first written democratic constitution, the first public art museum and the oldest continuously published newspaper, but most of its amazing “firsts” are seldom touted. Few credit its first publicly supported school for the handicapped (the American School for the Deaf), the first public park (Bushnell Park), or the first Boys and Girls Club. There's so much more.
While the world comes to the Mark Twain House, among the “world's 10 most important house museums,” suburbanites and outsiders still undervalue Hartford. The new Coltsville National Historical Park was created by Congress in 2014, but why not long before? Sam and Elizabeth Colt and Coltsville, their industrial village, are paramount in U.S. industrial/social history, making Hartford the epicenter of the “Silicon Valley of 19th-century America.”
When I've led tour groups that get off the bus and meet Hartford's diverse city leaders, the amazement is palpable. On finishing a recent tour, a suburbanite said, “They're making an impact in their community and workplace. I connected with the 'new' Hartford and all it has to offer.”
Today, accelerating changes are expanding the city's appeal to young and old, and corporations alike. The flourishing arts community is more than just our Tony Award-winning Hartford Stage Company and nationally recognized Artists Collective.
Our acclaimed waterfront, created by Riverfront Recapture, is one of Connecticut's major entertainment/recreational venues, the new Dunkin' Donuts Park is selling out Yard Goats games, and dozens of parades and festivals occur year-round.
Downtown's boom in new housing and college campuses, and Front Street's entertainment and restaurants are energizing city streets day and night.
In order to claim a dynamic image, Hartford needs to follow other successful cities and create strong partnerships among all stakeholders and implement smart, creative and highly publicized programming/marketing. Done right, the public will embrace Hartford's vibe.
Publicize daily events through a comprehensive online calendar and app, highway billboards and corporate office monitors. Conduct more guided city tours and market diverse offerings linking retail, food and entertainment experiences. Make it easier to discover Hartford in all its present glory.
As a Trinity student recently observed, “The city has the potential to be as popular as Boston or New York City, and has the people and leaders with the know-how to get there.”
That's the stuff of this city's future.
Greg Andrews is the manager of the Hartford Encounters and Executive Orientation programs at Leadership Greater Hartford. He is also the co-author of “Structures and Styles: Guided Tours of Hartford Architecture.”
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