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September 20, 2021

Rocky Hill is Greater Hartford’s fastest-growing community. Here’s why

Photo | HBJ File Rocky Hill Economic Development Director Raymond Carpentino said the coronavirus hasn’t delayed any projects in town yet, but the outlook remains uncertain.

When the 2020 U.S. Census figures were released last month, Rocky Hill stood out.

In contrast to population losses reported in many communities in the state, including nearby Hartford, the number of Rocky Hill residents grew a healthy 5.7%, the most of any municipality in Hartford County. Rocky Hill’s demographics are so robust that it added a new school in 2019 even as communities around the state close educational facilities due to falling enrollment.

A growing population of 20,845 people isn’t the only good news. The town also enjoys a thriving and diverse economy that includes everything from the North American headquarters of German beauty and consumer product giant Henkel and aerospace and pharmaceutical companies to video production outfits and a vibrant restaurant scene.

So how is this community perhaps best known for Dinosaur State Park — home to a treasure trove of dinosaur tracks discovered in the late 1960s — bucking the prevailing narrative of Connecticut as an economically stagnant and demographically declining place?

First and foremost, location, location, location, town officials said. Rocky Hill is ideally situated near the nexus of Interstate 91 and Route 9 — a short distance from Hartford, Bradley International Airport and other business hubs, said Director of Economic Development Raymond Carpentino. That makes it a highly-attractive place to live and do business, he said.

But Carpentino and Mayor Lisa Marotta are quick to add that Rocky Hill’s success in attracting residents and businesses isn’t just an accident of geography. The town also has excellent schools, a great parks-and-recreation department and attractive, walkable public spaces, they said. Its diverse housing stock can accommodate pretty much any budget or lifestyle, offering everything from apartments and condominiums to both affordable and high-end single family homes, they said.

“We have attractive neighborhoods that are user friendly,” Carpentino said. “Good schools are a major attraction for companies looking to expand or relocate. They are like a magnet. A good education system keeps attracting people, and it becomes a desirable location.”

Lisa Marotta

Town officials haven’t stopped there. They have worked hard to further leverage those advantages by streamlining approval processes, keeping tax rates competitive (its current mill rate is 34.1), offering tax abatements and working closely with companies and investors interested in moving to town, Marotta and Carpentino said.

Businesses “really, really appreciate” the willingness of town officials to spend time meeting and addressing their needs, Carpentino said.

“We have a very business-friendly application process,” Marotta added. “Recently we revised the planning and zoning regulations to reduce the number of steps to go through.”

It was the town’s willingness to work with business that contributed to Belfonti Cos. CEO Michael Belfonti’s decision to commit last month to redeveloping the long-vacant Ames property on Main Street. Belfonti’s $50 million project is slated to bring about 200 market-rate apartments and 20,000 square feet of retail and office space to the center of town.

“The mayor has been fantastic to work with as well as Ray Carpentino and John Mehr, the town manager,” Belfonti said.

Immigration drives growth

Rocky Hill has yet another factor driving its business and demographic success: immigration. The town has become a destination of choice for the region’s growing south Asian community.

Its Asian population, most of which hails from India, nearly doubled from 9.8% in 2010 to more than 18% in 2020, according to U.S. Census figures. Marotta said that she was recently approached about recognizing a Hindu holiday in the schools, and there is talk of adding a field for cricket —a hugely popular game in India — to the town’s mix of sports facilities.

The newcomers tend to be well-educated engineers and computer experts coming to work in various regional area industries, like insurance or manufacturing, while others have opened businesses, Carpentino and Marotta said. Some stay only a few years but many others are buying homes and putting down roots, they said.

That immigrants have contributed to Rocky Hill’s success doesn’t surprise Quinnipiac University Professor Emeritus David Cadden. New arrivals juice both population and economic growth, said Cadden, a business professor who specializes in entrepreneurship and has studied what makes communities grow.

“If you take a look at some of the fastest-growing cities, part of the growth is attributable to immigrants,” he said. “The fascinating thing is entrepreneurship is higher among immigrants than among native Americans.”

Asked what makes communities grow, Cadden rattled off a list of prerequisites, including livability, affordability, reasonable taxes, excellent schools and easy access to transportation, all of which Rocky Hill enjoys. The town is missing only one element Cadden lists, a lively downtown.

Rocky Hill officials are on that. They said they hope that the Ames property redevelopment will create the busy town center the community lacks.

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