Editor’s Note: Last week, CT Examiner spent three and a half hours on the campaign trail with Hartford Republican mayoral candidate Michael McGarry. Earlier this month, we featured a day in the life of the city’s Democratic mayoral candidate, Arunan Arulampalam.
HARTFORD – With less than two weeks until Election Day, Hartford Republican mayoral candidate Michael McGarry spent Friday talking to downtown businesses along Pratt Street, handing out campaign literature and pitching his message: Hartford needs a robust marketing campaign featuring a map directory of businesses and a visitor center.
Marketing Hartford’s business district has been the cornerstone of McGarry’s long-shot campaign in the state’s capital city where registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by a 13-1 margin.
McGarry, 79, who is co-publisher of the Hartford News, acknowledged he probably won’t win the race but said his is a campaign of ideas in an effort to make Hartford a thriving city with a lively downtown.
“I know it will be very difficult to win. I’m putting the ideas out there that we should be a visitor city, which we are not,” said McGarry, a former city councilman who is running for mayor for the fifth time.
While on a trip in September to Dunkeld, a town of 1,300 in Perth and Kinross in Scotland, McGarry said he was inspired by an easy-to-carry map directory of the city featuring all of its businesses, churches, and tourist attractions, as well as the phone number for the local tourist information center.
Since his return, McGarry has been pitching a similar directory for Hartford businesses, which he said the city of 121,000 people currently lacks. It was also one of his main talking points at the Oct. 23 CT Examiner-sponsored mayoral debate.
“We need to do a much better job marketing the city,” McGarry told CT Examiner. “The Chamber of Commerce is here but [creating a directory] is not part of their job.”
He said that win or lose, he will push forward with talking to city business and political leaders about creating a directory of the city. “It would be really worthwhile and inexpensive to put together. We could update it yearly,” McGarry said.
His other marketing plans for the city include showing short ads for city tourist attractions on the big screens at the Convention Center and XL Center.
“I don’t want Hartford to be an after-thought,” the candidate said.
He said Hartford “was booming, especially in the early 2000s. But, that slid away, in part because of COVID and people not working downtown.”
McGarry is running against Democrat Arunan Arulampalam and petitioning candidates Giselle Jacobs, Nick Lebron, J. Stan McCauley and Mark Stewart Greenstein.
CT Examiner caught up with McGarry on the campaign trail at noon on Friday to observe “a day in the life” of a candidate seeking the top seat in Hartford.
Friday was an unseasonably warm day for late October, and McGarry had lunch at Vaughan’s Irish Public House at 59 Pratt St., where he pitched the concepts of a city directory and a visitor’s center to the staff.
“He has my vote,” bartender Michael DeCasperis told CT Examiner. “These are simple, common sense policies he believes in. They are kitchen-table issues.”
DeCasperis also told McGarry he was concerned that there are not enough police in the downtown area.
McGarry responded that Hartford is missing uniformed police in the downtown. “You need police with badges and guns walking the beat, so people see some sense of order,” he said.
Erin Sweeney, a bartender at Vaughan’s for 16 years, said the concept of a city directory similar to Dunkeld’s is tangible.
“Just look at it; there is a bird’s eye view of [Dunkeld] on this,” Sweeney said. “It could be interactive too. The amount of people I draw a map to to go to other places in Hartford is crazy.”
After Vaughan’s, McGarry walked over to Capital Spirits at 73 Pratt St., where he spoke with manager Sarah Zielinski, who has run the store for four years.
Zielinski was intrigued with McGarry’s pitch. She said she had just visited North Adams, Mass., which had a directory similar to Dunkeld.
“I like maps like this,” Zielinksi said. “They are visual and have everything you need.”
McGarry told Zielinski he’d like to hire a local artist to produce Hartford’s directory.
Zielinski said the upcoming holiday season “is our busiest of the year. People from all over come in for wine and whiskey.” Echoing Sweeney, Zielinski said she’s acted as an unofficial tour guide for many customers who want to explore businesses in Hartford’s downtown and throughout the city.
While at Capital Spirits, McGarry ran into Lapidio Torres, who works for the Hartford Business Improvement District, “a 60-block non-profit” that works to enhance the “economic vitality and quality of life” in the commercial core of Hartford.
Torres said a directory of Hartford would be “tremendous, just awesome. It would help a lot. It would be easy to navigate, 100 percent.”
Torres said that when people see his improvement district shirt they will often “ask where things are. It happens all day long. A map would help.”
Next, McGarry headed to Mourneault’s Stackpole Moore Tryon, a high-end apparel store at the corner of Pratt and Trumbull streets, where co-owner Ronnie Mourneault said the business district needed a change of leadership.
“It needs to be more promotional,” said Mourneault, who has run the business since 2007.
Mourneault said he markets the store himself – using social media and advertising – to build his customer base. “We have clientele all over the state and region and even the country.”
McGarry told Mourneault that the city of Hartford is competing with communities like Stamford, Waterbury and “New Haven is our biggest competitor. They are all organized and promote like hell.”
After leaving Mourneault’s, McGarry said he was disappointed with the number of vacant storefronts on Pratt street and the surrounding area.
He walked by the former Max Bibo’s at the corner of Trumbull and Pratt streets, which has been vacant for three years.
“Look at this. It looks rough; this is the viewpoint people have of the city,” McGarry said of the empty, dirty storefront that faces the XL Center. “At least cover it up with banners and calendars.”
McGarry stopped for a drink and conversation at Urban Lodge Brewing Co., at 88 Pratt Street.
Kylie Caffrey, the company’s general manager, said the business – which has a sister site in Manchester and has been on Pratt Street for just two weeks – would love to hand out directories of the city to patrons.
“It has a simple explanation where everything is,” Caffrey said, looking at the Dunkeld directory. “I think it’s cool and is visual and makes a lot of sense.”
Caffrey told McGarry that a big issue for her and other small business people in the area is parking.
“There should be a way for people on Pratt Street to park,” said Caffrey who noted that Pratt Street was blocked off and for pedestrian use only. “We [employees] shouldn’t have to pay on the streets and the parking garages are a lot of money. It would be nice to get a discounted price on parking; that’s my biggest thing.”
McGarry agreed and said there should be a designated parking area nearby just for employees.
McGarry saw Tom and Lelaneia Dubay, co-owners of Hartford Flavor Cocktail Parlour at 54 Pratt Street, who were readying their 4,000-square-foot space – with seating upward of 175 people – that’s scheduled to open in December. It will be an extension of a distillery the couple own in the city’s Parkville section.
Lelaneia, who is Scottish-American, commented positively on the Dunkeld map.
“I love it. It has nice art and great drawings too,” she said. “We need that here. It would be a roadmap for the wonderful experiences that Hartford hides.”
Lelaneia said they moved their business to the city’s Parkville section 12 years ago from Glastonbury because “we wanted to be part of the renaissance of Hartford. We knew we wanted to start a business here and really celebrate the history of Hartford.”
Lelaneia said her business is the first distillery in Hartford since the 1980s. “We wanted to bring booze back to the Capital,” she said.
Lelaneia also said she’d like any promotional materials to include “our wonderful history. There is a lot of history here from Revolutionary times. No one celebrates it.”
“We get a ton of visitors and tourists. There are no maps and no tourist centers in Hartford,” said Rory Gale, owner of Hartford Prints at 42 1/2 Pratt Street.
Gale told McGarry that the city could have a visitors center “at the pavilion on the corner of Main and Asylum Streets so when people come downtown they don’t feel lost and they have a list of things to do.”
Gale opened her gift store business in 2013 and said she sells a number of Hartford and Connecticut-themed souvenirs.
A Hartford resident, Gale said she is committed to voting for “another candidate” but that McGarry had some good ideas.
She also expressed frustration with the parking situation downtown.
“We need to have affordable parking,” Gale said. “It’s the parking capital of the world and we pay for it.”