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January 8, 2024 5 To Watch

New Hartford Mayor Arulampalam’s economic development agenda: make city more approachable for business

HBJ PHOTO | STEVE LASCHEVER Hartford Mayor Arunan Arulampalam officially took office at the start of this year.
Arunan Arulampalam 
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As newly inaugurated Hartford Mayor Arunan Arulampalam begins his first term, his early economic development strategy is focused on making city government easier for businesses to approach.

That will include, among other actions, the appointment of a new economic development director and creation of a new position responsible for helping small businesses navigate bureaucracy and grow in the Capital City.

Arulampalam said there will be other staffing changes as well.

“One thing I heard pretty consistently from businesses while I was running for office was, even though there was a pro-business administration at City Hall, oftentimes it was difficult to get things done at development services,” Arulampalam said.

Arulampalam, 38, said he also plans to better coordinate the city’s economic development, land use review and inspections staff around a common goal of easing customer access and service.

“I think it is an ethos of collaboration and a culture of working together and being focused on the progress of the city of Hartford,” Arulampalam said.

Arulampalam said he will quickly move to create an “Office of the Small Business Advisor.” Here, prospective and current small business owners will find help navigating city requirements, including the permitting process.

That should result in “real progress” within the first 100 days of the new administration in reducing wait times for inspection approvals or permits, he said.

Arulampalam has worked in corporate law and public service, giving him some experience in government operations and a window into business needs.

After graduating from the Quinnipiac University School of Law in 2014, Arulampalam was hired by Hartford law firm Updike, Kelly & Spellacy, where he spent five years as an associate. In 2019, he was appointed by Gov. Ned Lamont to be deputy commissioner of the state Department of Consumer Protection.

In 2021, he took over as CEO of the Hartford Land Bank, which has a mission to turn dilapidated residential properties into new homeownership opportunities for local residents.

Challenges and opportunities

Arulampalam is leading the city at a time when Hartford is working to regain economic development momentum lost to the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the close of the third quarter of 2023, 27.9% of the 7.9 million square feet of office space available in Hartford’s central business district was vacant, according to an analysis by CBRE.

Industry experts expect vacancies to climb as leases signed before the pandemic continue to expire in the years ahead. Many companies are downsizing their office footprints as they embrace hybrid work models.

The consequences are potentially extreme for landlords, local merchants and even the city’s tax base, which relies heavily on corporate office buildings.

Arulampalam acknowledged growing office vacancies are one of Hartford’s most obvious economic development challenges. And he doesn’t expect a significant rebound in corporate office footprints.

Arulampalam said he is committed to working with existing landlords to find creative solutions to fill empty space. Business recruitment and repurposing existing office space will be part of the mix, he said.

The new mayor wants to begin by taking stock of current and pending office vacancies, the state of the buildings involved, and their potential for new uses. He is interested in an approach that leads to collaboration, rather than competition, between downtown property owners.

Arulampalam’s predecessor, former Mayor Luke Bronin, placed much of his faith in the rapid introduction of market-rate apartments to downtown Hartford, as part of an effort to grow a residential base that can better support retailers, restaurants and entertainment amenities.

Speaking at the MetroHartford Alliance’s annual meeting on Dec. 12, Bronin noted about 3,000 apartments had been added to the city in recent years, and roughly another 2,500 are in the design, approval and financing pipeline.

Bronin credited the new apartments with helping regain some of the momentum lost during the pandemic.

Bronin also touted a potential $100 million overhaul planned for the XL Center arena, new restaurants and shops supported by the city’s Hart Lift grant program, and a planned downtown Hartford expansion by UConn.

The outgoing mayor urged business leaders to continue to advocate for state backing of additional apartments in Hartford.

Bronin said downtown Hartford needs at least 5,000 additional apartments, and could accommodate many more.

“I believe that making sure the downtown is a neighborhood, and not just an office park, is the absolute key to our success in creating a vibrant downtown in the years ahead,” Bronin said. “And that’s going to be the key to success in supporting all of the commercial buildings and all of the businesses that are down there.”

Arulampalam said he isn’t sure yet how many apartments downtown Hartford can absorb.

The new mayor is certain, however, that the city needs to foster additional downtown retail, restaurant and entertainment options in order to secure the benefits of recently added apartments.

New residents aren’t going to stay in Hartford just because it has nice living units. It also needs more things to do, and places to find goods and services, he said.

“Hartford is becoming a destination,” Arulampalam said. “That’s something to be proud of. I think we have to build around it, the kind of amenities that folks are looking for downtown, the entertainment, the restaurants and the bars that keep people in this city and make downtown the crown jewel of the Capital City. That’s really important to me.”

Arulampalam said one way to accomplish this would be to add funds to the city’s $11 million Hart Lift program, which provides grants of up to $150,000 to help property owners fit out vacant ground-floor spaces for new or expanding retailers and restaurants.

As of early December, the Hartford Chamber of Commerce reported Hart Lift funding helped support 63 new business startups, with about one-third open and many more expected to debut by the spring.

Spreading the focus

Arulampalam is also promising to expand development beyond downtown.

He said there must be a greater focus on rebuilding commercial corridors in neighborhoods like Upper Albany, upper Main Street and Park Street.

He said he would like to create a dedicated fund for this effort using tax proceeds from retail cannabis sales.

“I think it’s a real opportunity to fund growth in our neighborhoods, and for the rebuilding of wealth within our neighborhoods,” Arulampalam said.

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