Nearing Exit, Hartford Mayor Talks Bailout, Remote Work and Building Occupancy

Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin in his offices in Hartford City Hall on June 22, 2023. (Robert Storace / CT Examiner)


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Conventional wisdom is that Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin – who took office in January 2016 when the city was on the verge of bankruptcy – has higher ambitions.

The 44-year-old Democrat, who announced late last year that he won’t seek a third mayoral term, explored a run for governor in 2018 before endorsing Ned Lamont. Many believe Bronin is eyeing the state’s top job in 2026 if Lamont decides not to run again.

Bronin, however, is noncommittal on his political future.

In a wide-ranging interview with CT Examiner on Thursday, Bronin brushed off questions about whether he’d run for governor in three years.

“It’s a long time away and we have a governor,” said Bronin, who also would not say whether he planned to endorse any of the Democrats currently looking to succeed him as mayor.

Bronin, who said he made it a point during his tenure to reach out to city and state leaders as well as the business community and unions, noted it was those relationships that helped stave off Hartford from bankruptcy soon after he first took office.

“When I came in, we faced our budget crisis,” he said. “We did a whole bunch of things to tackle it. We asked our unions to make some really significant concessions, and they did. We made some deep and painful cuts, which meant that our community was part of building a path forward toward fiscal stability. We also asked some of our biggest companies to step up and they did just that.”

A state-financed bailout in 2017 saved Hartford from nearly filing for bankruptcy.

“We prepared in earnest for a bankruptcy filing,” said Bronin, who served in the Obama administration as deputy assistant secretary for terrorist financing and financial crimes in the U.S. Department of Treasury, and then in 2013 was appointed general counsel to then-Gov. Dannel Malloy. “Fortunately, we did not have to go down that path.”

Hartford’s Path to Near-Bankruptcy

Bronin would not single out any person or previous administration for Hartford’s fiscal woes, but said, “There were plenty of mistakes made in the past. Fundamentally, that fiscal crisis we faced in 2016 and 2017 was the result of deeper structural issues that had a Band-Aid over it for too long. The basic structural problems is that we are in a state where the only source of locally generated revenue is the property tax, and you have a city where half the property is non-taxable.”

Bronin, a Yale-educated lawyer and U.S. Navy veteran who was deployed to Afghanistan, said he was determined to address the city’s financial crisis head on.

“We did things differently,” he said. “We refused to just figure out a way to get from one year to the next. Working in partnership with our stakeholders, we tackled [fiscal concerns] in an honest, transparent and responsible way, and prevented what could have been catastrophic consequences for Connecticut’s capital city.” 

Being transparent, responsible and working closely with stakeholders moving forward will be essential to avoiding fiscal calamity in the future, Bronin said.

He does have his critics, including those who questioned the bailout. Others like Republican Bob Stefanowski, who ran twice for governor and lost, penned a 2021 Wall Street Journal opinion piece titled, “What isn’t the Matter with Hartford.”

In response, Bronin told CT Examiner that the former gubernatorial candidate “doesn’t know what he is talking about.”

House Speaker Matt Ritter, a Democrat, speaks to Bronin on the phone at least twice a week. It’s been Bronin’s ability to collaborate with top city and state budget and political officials that has helped Hartford move toward a path of fiscal stability, Ritter believes.

“It was a partnership. It was the mayor working with myself, the Hartford delegation, Gov. Malloy and Ben Barnes [head of the Office of Policy and Management under Malloy] that got Hartford out of a dire situation. If not for that, Hartford would not be where it is today,” Ritter told CT Examiner. “The mayor was the one who said, ‘Look, I’m out of options. I have nowhere to go.’’ We put a deal together and they agreed to go under state oversight.”

Under Bronin’s leadership, Ritter said, “I would argue that this is the closest the state and the city have been in terms of working together.”

But Bronin said the pandemic has turned a once-bustling downtown into a city that has lost thousands of visitors a day because of remote working, something several city unions guarantee for their workers. Companies lose a sense of mentorship, camaraderie and the brainstorming of ideas when workers work remotely, the mayor said.

“There are tens of thousands of people who used to be here on a daily basis who aren’t here on a daily basis anymore,” Bronin said. “And that hits restaurants, retail, bars and small businesses of all kinds hard. I’m hopeful that, in time, we are going to continue to see a return to work in the office. I’m very strongly of the view that organizations really lose something when they shift too far toward working remotely. You lose the ability to build a culture and to create a sense of mission to mentor younger employees. I think more and more employees and employers alike are recognizing that the convenience of working from home comes at a real cost. We will shift back, but I have no idea how long that will take.”

Bronin said decisions companies make regarding remote work are out of the city’s control, but he can continue making the argument for employees to come into work.

“Those are decisions that employers are going to make, and they are going to make those decisions based on what they see in the labor market and what they think their employers are willing to do,” the mayor said.

According to CBRE Realty, Hartford has seen a slight decline since pre-pandemic of overall building occupancy – rates in the last quarter of 2019 stood at 81.7 percent and fell to 76.3 percent for the first quarter of 2023.

In response to the latest figures, Bronin said, “I think those numbers probably understate the scale of the challenge for the commercial real estate market. You have a number of buildings where there are leases in force. But tenants are looking to sublease because they are not using the space or all of the space. Like a lot of midsize cities, Hartford has been hit by the shift to remote work as we discussed. So, I think we are in the early days of the potential crisis in the commercial real estate market and not the later stages.”

Bronin takes credit for being Hartford’s top cheerleader, touting what he views as the city’s bright spots. That can’t happen, he said, without “building a different sense of energy and momentum.” 

That includes “the thousands of people going to a Yard Goats game or a Hartford Athletic game,” he said. “It also includes the new investment and construction that create more residential opportunities to bring our city more alive. It includes things like our Reentry Welcome Center, which has helped many hundreds of people come back into our community to have a chance to rebuild their lives after making a mistake and doing time for it. It also includes our Youth Services Corps, which we created with private partnerships.”

He also discussed the impact of the 2022 settlement in Sheff v. O’Neill, following more than three decades of litigation.

A 1996 state Supreme Court ruling found the city’s public schools did not provide students with an equal educational opportunity compared to other communities, as required by the state constitution. The court, however, said the state Legislature could craft a remedy.

Among other things, the agreement appropriates $12.6 million to restructure and market school choice programs, directs an additional $6.8 million to athletic programs, nearly $8 million to enhance extracurricular programs and activities, and $48.7 million to fund renovating facilities. Magnet schools would also see gradual increases in financial support.

Bronin said the decision “created a lot of important educational opportunities for a lot of kids, but it also has unintended consequences. The biggest unintended consequence is the instability it creates for the Hartford Public School system. As more magnet programs are created or expanded … it also means that it is very hard for the Hartford Public Schools to plan for their future enrollment.”

Bronin leaves office in January and said he’s not sitting on his laurels in the months remaining. Revitalizing the city, especially investing in the Albany Avenue area, he said, is a top priority for this year.

“We have a number of projects on Albany Avenue and have made significant investments in Albany Avenue in recent years,” Bronin said. “We want to keep that work going and really change the game so that  Albany Avenue can be the strong, vibrant commercial quarter that it ought to be. That includes projects such as filling in vacant lots and redeveloping blighted buildings. We are working hard to push those forward.”

Additionally, the mayor said he sees a “real opportunity at the Rensselaer Polytechnic site, which is 13 acres right near the [Dunkin] ballpark. I’d like to help get that project to a place where it can move forward under the next administration.”

Bronin noted there are several new projects in the works regarding investment in the Parkville neighborhood.

Asked what his biggest weakness was as mayor, Bronin paused and then responded, “Like any mayor, I tried to make the right decisions and to do the right things to move this city forward. I also think one of the most important things a mayor can do is help a community believe in its own ability to do those things. I hope I’ve done that. But I wish I could have done it better.”

Robert Storace

Robert Storace is a veteran reporter with stints at New Britain Herald, the New Haven Register, the Connecticut Post, Hartford Business Journal and the Connecticut Law Tribune. Storace covers the State Capitol for CT Examiner. T: 203 437 5950