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December 11, 2023

New East Hartford mayor Martin aims to land big projects queued up by predecessor — and revive downtown

HBJ PHOTO | MICHAEL PUFFER East Hartford Mayor Connor Martin wants to close a block-long section of Bissell Street (shown in background) to motorists to create an events and gathering spot partnered with retail activity.
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Newly elected and recently sworn in East Hartford Mayor Connor Martin comes into office with an array of ambitious economic development projects either underway or in process.

“As (former Mayor Michael Walsh) got the ball rolling on all of these projects, what’s important is that my administration sees them to the finish line,” said the 32-year-old Democratic mayor during a recent interview.

Construction of two large-scale logistics warehouses at Rentschler Field is on track to wrap up this spring. They’ll add a combined 2.5 million square feet of industrial space, leased by Lowe’s Home Improvement and Wayfair.

The town is pursuing demolition of three blighted retail buildings within the Silver Lane Plaza and a private-sector partner to redevelop the 22-acre site.

East Hartford is also pushing residential projects, including redevelopment of the Church Corners Inn property on Main Street into 24 apartments, and ground-up construction of a large apartment community featuring hundreds of living units at the former Showcase Cinemas site.

Meanwhile, a New Jersey investor is working to redevelop a shuttered hotel on Roberts Street with town support.

Above it all, a group of leading developers and businessmen have plans for an ambitious $841 million redevelopment of the Founders Plaza office park along the Connecticut River. The proposal calls for about 1,000 new apartments, 300,000 square feet of commercial space, new transport links and upgraded connections to riverside trails.

As Walsh’s chief of staff for two years, Martin is intimately familiar with the projects and the people behind them.

It will be a big task to land even a portion of the developments Walsh queued up during his two-year term as mayor. But Martin said he plans to add to the list.

Downtown revival

Located along a roughly three-quarter-mile stretch of Main Street, East Hartford’s downtown streetscape is dated and worn, Martin said.

It doesn’t have an abundance of vacancies, but could use a greater variety of in-demand retail options that are open for longer hours, he said.

He wants to secure state and other funding to upgrade benches, lights, landscaping and sidewalks along downtown Main Street. He also wants to find funding to help downtown business owners refurbish their properties.

Martin said he hopes to reintroduce a downtown merchant’s organization to rally businesses and building owners around a town center revival. He is also contemplating a special services fund focused on downtown improvements.

That might come from using a portion of taxes gleaned from downtown properties, he said.

Martin also has a vision to redevelop a quiet section of a branching road — Bissell Street — into a vibrant retail, events and gathering spot, much like Hartford’s historic Pratt Street retail district.

The concept would be to close a block-long section of Bissell Street to traffic, bring in outdoor seating, and trigger redevelopment of a shuttered cinema building, possibly into something like Hartford’s Parkville Market, Martin said.

He imagines a brewery, small shops and food vendors serving a pedestrian-friendly “destination,” that could host music events and other activities.

“I think this could be a catalyst for the rest of Main Street,” Martin said.

The broad, four-lane Main Street also presents a potentially dangerous challenge to any pedestrian wishing to cross, Martin acknowledged. It is something the town has begun to address with the Department of Transportation, which manages the state-owned road and recently re-striped it with turning lanes.

That has helped, Martin said. He is also eager to realize plans for center-island planters.

“I’d love to brighten up the place,” Martin said. “Maybe that would encourage our businesses to stay open later.”

Making his mark

Martin said he plans to continue Mayor Walsh’s business- and development-friendly policies, and is open to tax deals and public-private partnerships.

The town’s property tax rate — currently 42.54 mills — was a recurring theme as Martin met with voters on the campaign trail. Martin said he doesn’t expect to be able to lower the overall rate during his first term, or even in a second one.

But he does ultimately hope to grow the value of properties, particularly business and commercial buildings, enough to eventually shift the burden away from residential homeowners.

Martin worked his way up through the grounds crew at Goodwin University in East Hartford, joining the staff at age 18, and becoming director of groundskeeping at 27.

There, he met mentors like Goodwin’s Assistant Vice President of Facilities Dan Larson — brother to U.S. Rep. John Larson — who helped instill a desire to work hard and make his mark through public service. It motivated Martin to finish a four-year degree, then earn a master’s degree in organizational leadership from Goodwin.

Martin got his start in politics with an appointment to East Hartford’s Zoning Board of Appeals in 2017, and election to the Town Council in 2019. He became vice chair of East Hartford’s Democratic Town Committee in January 2022.

Walsh first got acquainted with Martin over dinner at Carmine’s Bar & Grill in East Hartford in August 2020. Walsh, who was 60 at that meeting, recalls being impressed by the earnest and energetic man who, at half his age, shared many of the same viewpoints.

Gov. Ned Lamont, in August, appointed Walsh to chair the State Contracting Standards Board, which oversees state contracting and procurement requirements. Walsh said he expects to stay involved locally as a liaison to the Founders Plaza development and to offer counsel to Martin.

“We have been inseparable since August of 2020,” Walsh said. “He is a younger version of me and, in all candor, I think a version East Hartford deserves.”

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