Three candidates for mayor offered up varying ideas for economic development for New Britain, a city that has seen unprecedented growth in recent years.
Republican Mayor Erin Stewart, who is seeking her sixth two-year term in a city where registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans almost 4-1, has touted her economic development successes, which include 1,597 new businesses creating between 5,500 and 7,500 new jobs during her 10 years as the city’s top political official.
Her chief opponent, Democratic Town Committee Chairperson Chris Anderson, the party’s endorsed candidate, counters that much of the city’s growth has come about due to luxury apartments and developments built by wealthy out-of-town developers that are pricing out many residents.
It’s a major theme of Anderson’s campaign, the 34-year-old real estate accountant and recent New Britain transplant says the city needs to partner more with anchor institutions like Central Connecticut State University and the city’s hospitals to provide more affordable housing.
Democrat Angel Segarra, who as of Aug. 4 was considerably short of the 650 signatures needed by Aug. 9 to force a primary with Anderson, told CT Examiner he’d run as an Independent if he didn’t meet that threshold.
Segarra, a retired 67-year-old small businessman, said he approves of much of what the Stewart administration has done on the economic development front, saying he’d “amplify and refine” the job she’s done if elected. Segarra also said that because his wife is South Korean and his family has many connections in that country, he would be able to attract South Korean businesses – primarily factories, bakeries and restaurants – to the city if elected.
Stewart, a 36-year-old city native and daughter of four-time Republican Mayor Timothy Stewart, said she’s happy with the mix of housing in the city, which she says covers the gamut and all price points.
“You see a lot of communities that have an oversaturation of, you know, apartment complexes or an oversaturation of low income housing and no market rate housing,” Stewart told CT Examiner. “You want a mix.”
Stewart also noted a number of projects underway and in the works for lower- and moderate-income families . Stewart said she’s most proud of the redevelopment of the former St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic High School on Kelsey Street, with eleven single-family homes scheduled to be occupied by the fall of 2024.
“You are giving the opportunity for the American Dream to 11 families to build their life here in our city, contributing directly to our tax base,” Stewart said. “Development is all about balance and we don’t want to overdevelop; we have to have the right balance.” The homes will go for between $175,000 and $195,000, which, Stewart said, “are very reasonable” for the area.
Stewart said the city is also in the process of demolishing the Mount Pleasant property on Myrtle Street to make way for 300 units of lower-income housing.
Anderson, who served on the city’s Common Council as its assistant minority leader from 2019-2021 and has also served as a member of the Mattabassett District board, said, he believes, luxury apartments “are central to Mayor Stewart’s economic development strategy.” It’s a claim Stewart said isn’t accurate.
Anderson says that wealthy developers have a strong hold on the city, while Stewart says “the city has been competitive and very fair. We don’t have just one developer like we had for a very long time. There is competition among developers and you didn’t always have that.”
Anderson calls small and medium-sized businesses “the backbone” of any community and said he would offer tax breaks and tax abatements, to a point, to encourage those types of businesses to relocate to the city.
“They [tax breaks and abatements] need to be really limited in scope,” Anderson told CT Examiner. “They need to be in the 7 to 12 year range, not in the 26-year range, which we have seen.”
Anderson said partnerships with the city’s top businesses and organizations, and developing a better relationship with the state and federal delegations is essential. Those partnerships, said Anderson, could lead to big “moonshot projects” that would be a major boon for the city.
“I’m talking about a possible business and cultural center” that would be located in the area near the Beehive Bridge, he said. “New Britain is already well situated in terms of location and, we can better position ourselves as a transportation or business hub and expand the transit-oriented development around the Busway.”
Segarra, who is Hispanic, said that the Hispanic population makes up about 40 percent of the city’s population, but has been been left out.
“They have not been given the opportunity to get into the playing field; they’ve been left out of the process,” Segarra told CT Examiner.
He said he didn’t want to make specific promises he couldn’t keep regarding how better to leverage Latino businesses and attract more, but, he said, he’d support better marketing by the city’s Chamber of Commerce.
“I’d use the Chamber because, left to their own devices, many of them [businesses] fail,” said Segarra, who is serving his first term on the council. “Many of them need good advice on pricing and advertising and stuff like that. Many do not have the experience and they need someone to guide them.”
The candidates did agree that the pandemic played a big part in the city’s declining occupancy rate. According to CBRE, New Britain’s occupancy rate fell from 81.1 percent for the fourth quarter of 2019, to 69.5 percent for the second quarter of 2023.
Stewart expressed optimism that the city’s occupancy rates could hover around the 80 percent range again in “a couple of more years.”
“I think the pandemic caused a drop in occupancy rates nearly everywhere,” Stewart said. “I think, if you look at our occupancy trends across the board compared to other towns, I think we are doing much better and are slowly working our way back up.”
Stewart said she’s worked hard to build relationships with all economic development stakeholders, including developers, economic development entities, businesses and community leaders.
“I’m proud of the attention our economic development and improvements have garnered statewide,” said Stewart, who noted the city has seen 10 consecutive years of Grand List growth. “At one time, New Britain was looked down on and was frowned upon and, we kind of had this reputation of being a rundown city. Restoring pride in our community is something that I have held in high regard.”
Anderson said the city needs a new outlook on economic development.
“What would I do to increase commercial occupancy?” Anderson asked. “I think that the city needs to better diversify its economic development strategy. We are focused right now on subsidizing luxury housing and we really need to look at zoning changes; we need all housing including residential apartment housing.”