HARTFORD – Hartford has a packed field of eight mayoral candidates seeking to succeed Democrat Luke Bronin, and their visions for downtown economic development growth are as varied as the makeup of the city.
Six of the eight candidates spoke at length to CT Examiner, offering their views on topics ranging from vacancy rates and affordable housing to crime and attracting more culture and entertainment. Democrats Arunan Arulampalam and Tracy Funnyed did not respond to requests for interviews.
MetroHartford Alliance President and CEO David Griggs told CT Examiner this week he’s looking for the mayoral candidates – which include seven Democrats and Independent Mark Stewart Greenstein – to tackle what he believes is the most urgent issue facing downtown Hartford: Downtown vacancies.
“We are not the only city facing this situation, as nearly every city in America – and internationally, for that matter – has a problem,” Griggs said. “Cities that figure out how to prevent their grand list from shrinking are the ones that, in the long-term, will be better off. We want to be one of those cities.”
According to CBRE statistics, downtown Hartford’s vacancy rate in the fourth quarter of 2019, or pre-pandemic, was 17.5 percent. It stood at about 21 percent at the end of the first quarter in 2023.
Griggs said there is “no silver bullet” in addressing downtown building and storefront vacancies, saying that “whoever the mayor is, they need to have an open mind to solve this one bite at a time.”
Democratic candidate J. Stan McCauley, a 63-year-old freelance television producer, told CT Examiner he’d propose an “Innovation Fair,” whereby the city would allow mom-and-pop entities – many of whom work out of their homes – to sell their wares for 90 days in a currently vacant downtown storefront. The city would foot the bill for those three months, with the hope that store owners see the benefits of working downtown and then invest in property there.
“It’s all about investing in people who have a vision,” McCauley said. “The Innovation Fair is to draw these people out to come downtown.”
John Fonfara, a 67-year-old lifelong Hartford resident who has served as a state representative and is currently a state senator, is one of the front-runners in the race.
Fonfara said the city would need to have a “conversation” with business leaders and corporations to bring many of their currently remote employees back into downtown office buildings.
Fonfara, who served 36 years in the state Legislature, including eight as chair of the Finance Committee, said he has contacts and the respect of Hartford’s business community to do just that.
“In addition to the formal powers of the mayor, I have the informal ability to talk to corporate Hartford and others to bring people back,” Fonfara said. “But the concern here is that what the pandemic has created is a realization on the part of some employers that, for their workforce, it’s just as effective working from home or working in a hybrid situation.”
Fonfara also said the city must improve marketing its downtown to businesses in Boston and New York City.
“Those businesses in other states need to know not only what we have to offer, but how much cheaper it can be for their employees to live here,” he said. “They can buy three houses here for what they are paying for rent in New York City.”
Fonfara and other candidates cited fears of crime and a lack of entertainment and cultural opportunities as other factors keeping people away from downtown.
Hartford Police Department statistics from June 11 to July 8 show mixed results. There were 71 auto thefts during the four-week period in Hartford, compared to 42 during the same period in 2022. There were 137 larceny cases during that same period, down 42 percent from 2022; and there were nine cases of robbery with a firearm, up from six during the same time period in 2022.
Greenstein, a 59-year-old West Hartford educator who said he will be moving to Hartford before the election in November, said crime is the most pressing economic development issue.
“I believe that the best development comes not by wooing some corporations, because they are not likely to be wooed,” he said. “If they find it unsafe for their workers, and if they find it bad to have a retail site because they fear they will get broken into, [then businesses will not come].”
Greenstein, who lays blame on city judges for how they dispense justice, conceded there is little he could do as mayor to address sentences, but added, “We can bring attention to the issue. I think there are too many lenient [punishments] and rules. I do believe in short sentences [for nonviolent crimes], but maybe we need more of a ‘scared straight’ mentality. I’m not sure it works, but you are taking first-time offenders, often young, and you are putting them in the clink with some bad dudes. You then hope they will reform pretty damn quickly.”
Several candidates said while Hartford has the Yard Goats baseball team and institutions like The Bushnell Performing Arts Center, more entertainment options are needed to match the city’s diversity.
“When I grew up in Hartford, the downtown was very vibrant, and it’s no longer that way,” said 44-year-old Democratic mayoral candidate Nick Lebron, also the director of Catholic Charities for community schools. “We have to bring that culture back, and we have to do it in a way that is inclusive of everyone – people in the neighborhoods, as well as attracting people from surrounding towns.”
Lebron noted there are many empty surface parking lots in the city.
“We can fill those spaces with things like food trucks, and we can celebrate many different cultures in doing so,” he said. “People can make some revenue, and it also creates exposure [to the city’s diversity]. We can also have carnivals, festivals and arts culture. … We have festivals going on right now in the city of Hartford, but none of them are in Spanish, and [about] 60 percent of our population is Hispanic. We have many Spanish musicians who can come down there.”
For decades, Hartford’s downtown has seen numerous luxury apartments and buildings being erected. Several candidates said developers are making it harder for residents to live in the city.
According to the U.S. Census, the poverty rate among Hispanics or Latinos is 45 percent, 34 percent for Black residents and 20 percent for White Hartford residents. About 121,000 people live in Hartford.
Democratic mayoral candidate Giselle Jacobs, a 58-year-old entrepreneur with an environmental services business, said she has seen enough luxury apartments in Hartford.
“Absolutely not,” when Jacobs was asked if there should be more investments in high-end housing. “It’s [high rents] causing other landlords to raise their rents to astronomical rates that I haven’t seen before. I know of a senior right now, he’s a veteran like myself, and his landlord just sent him a notice that his rent was going to go from $900 a month to $1,300 a month, and he lives in downtown Hartford.”
If elected, Jacobs said she would work toward eliminating homelessness.
Jacobs, who was once homeless, said she’d have the city take over vacant properties and “convert them into one- or two-bedroom apartments. I would like to invest in our residents as opposed to allowing these outside landlords to come in and buy them [properties]. We need to take care of our own.”
Democratic mayoral candidate Eric Coleman, a 72-year-old former state senator and state Superior Court judge, agreed that the “train, as far as affordable housing downtown, has left the station.”
Coleman said, if elected to the city’s top political post, he’d want to see the “city become more involved in housing. There is such a proliferation of absentee landlords.” Many tenants in those dwellings, he said, are being charged unreasonable rents for units with rodents and items in disrepair.
“In a Coleman administration, we would take aggressive steps to acquire those types of properties that were abandoned or vacant and refurbish them and, maybe, even construct newer apartment buildings based on the theory that, with an abundant supply [of properties], the prices may go down if there are options and choices for tenants to make.”
Greenstein promised that, if elected, he’d ask 20 ambassadors to travel to New York and New Jersey, highlighting Hartford’s promise to businesses in those states, with the mission of relocating them to Hartford.
“The ambassadors [who the city would pay to travel to the states] would be good social people with varied backgrounds,” Greenstein said. “Some might have a finance background, while others might have a retail business background or an education background. Annie Lamont would be a good ambassador, for example. She’s talented and she has done finance.”
City leaders and many of the mayoral candidates said they are closely watching a lawsuit tied to development near Dunkin’ Park downtown. Plans for major development near the park have been put on hold due to a dispute between the city and two companies suing Hartford.
In late May, a state Superior Court judge sided against the city in the lawsuit, but Hartford leaders are hopeful the state Supreme Court will rule in the city’s favor. This would allow Stamford-based RMS Companies to continue developing around the park, adding mixed-use residential and commercial spaces throughout the area known as North Crossing.
“At the end of the day, we need a thriving community there [at Dunkin’ Park],” Lebron said. “RMS is ready to go. I think, in the end, we have more plusses than minuses and that the [state] Supreme Court will show that.”