Something to Say Hartford is No. 1

Posted on Wednesday, October 14 2009 by Heather Brandon

A massive vision for renewal for the Hartford riverfront. Hartford Courant, May 5, 1998.

A massive vision of renewal for the Hartford riverfront. Hartford Courant, 5/5/98

What tells you that your own city is the pick of the litter? Is it the number of miles of interstate highway you can boast within your boundaries? Hugest swaths of public park land? Size of your development parcels? Number of Dunkin Donut franchises? Largest quantity of taxable properties? Biggest block parties?

In early 1998, such a victory could be claimed for Hartford, or so the thinking went at the time for a key advisory panel, if the downtown riverfront area were developed with 1,000 housing units, a convention center, retail stores, movie theaters, and park land—crowned with a massive sports stadium.

A stadium would say Hartford is number one. Hartford Courant, 3/22/98

A stadium would say Hartford is number one. Hartford Courant, 3/22/98

The stadium was envisioned for concerts and large sports events, among other things. Governor Jodi Rell, then lieutenant governor, chaired the panel that proposed the plan, fueled by a combination of public and private dollars. A state authority was created to oversee and coordinate the numerous efforts, many of which have come to fruition in one way or another over the ensuing decade—except for the sports stadium, which was in some respects a real driving force behind the entire plan, as originally conceived.

A March 22, 1998 article in the Hartford Courant (pictured above, right) quoted one of the panel members, Anthony Autorino, saying of the stadium, “We needed something that was really going to say, ‘Hartford is No. 1.’ It needed something bold.”

The sports stadium simply never came to be. How can we now know if Hartford is number one?

Last spring, the Connecticut Science Center opened with a good deal of aplomb and tentative success. Its Web site earnestly directs visitors to parking in the area as well as alternative transit options. It’s a wonderful place to go—and it desperately needs good company.

Front Street District from Arch Street. Photo © H Brandon

Front Street District, under construction this fall, as seen from Arch Street. Photo © H Brandon

A major remaining piece for the massive development plan is the Front Street District, which lost its housing component, and is still seeking retail and other tenants. Walking around the large downtown area today, which also includes the Connecticut Convention Center, one is filled, so to speak, with a feeling of emptiness.

Downtown Hartford seen from Charter Oak Avenue and I-91. Photo by H Brandon

Downtown Hartford seen from Charter Oak Avenue and I-91. Photo © H Brandon

Was the big plan really what the city needed? Such talk is now regarded with deep suspicion, if it had ever been fully embraced in the past, and instead there seems to be a growing consensus that small, sustainable development plans are what can help cities limping along in their struggle to maintain a steady tax base and a thriving economy.

As a location to launch a small business, the Hartford metro region has been named number five in the nation by CNNMoney.com. City-based entrepreneur Imani Zito was quoted saying, “We spent $50,000 on a parking lot and $150,000 on a renovation, but if we didn’t own the building where we live and work, we probably wouldn’t still be here.”

Courant columnist Rick Green uses the ranking as an opportunity to tell people not to leave yet.

Small businesses are not at the scale of doing something bold and shouting to the rooftops that the city is number one; they’re just trying to hang on, if they managed to get started in the first place. And yet they provide the backbone of enterprise in the community, and the whole region does better when its businesses are many and diverse. With all the bum raps Hartford gets, this number five ranking is pretty sweet—we’ll take it—but where’s our number one? Maybe a top-of-the-line urban skate park?

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