Sometimes I think that Hartford is its own worst enemy. We can study issues to death, fund all types of non-profits that are supposed to be addressing issues even though very little changes, yet we seem to be unable to find the missing part of the puzzle.
My mother had wanted to visit O'Rourke's Diner in Middletown for breakfast today. She had read about the diner in Yankee Magazine and seen profiles of O'Rourke's on various TV programs. I wasn't sure that we would even be able to get in on Easter Sunday, but we gave it a shot. After a short wait we had breakfast, even though I think my Irish Soda Bread has theirs beat handsdown.
During breakfast my mother told me that in all the years she had lived in Connecticut, she had never been to Middletown. After we finished we drove around Downtown Middletown. I was surprised by the vibrancy of Main Street in Middletown compared to Downtown Hartford. I didn't see rows of vacant storefronts. What I did see were retail shops and numerous restaurants that were open and seemed busy.
There was a waiting line to get into O'Rourke's and it seemed like most restaurants along Main Street were having the same problem. Wouldn't that be a wonderful problem for downtown Hartford to have on a Sunday?
We went by the First and Last Tavern which is housed on the groundfloor of the Middletown Police Department's relatively new building. That obviously took some leadership and foresight for someone to decide to offset the operations costs of the PD by incorporating retail and rental space into the construction of a Municipal building.
I was asking myself what Middletown was doing that Hartford wasn't. For anyone that remembers Hartford in its heyday, our downtown was vibrant and thriving. The streets were busy not only at noon time, but through out the evening and on weekends. Today Hartford is like a ghost town after the corporate world bails out.
One of the big differences I saw in Middletown was abundant parking and most of it was free at the time. Another big factor I'm sure is Middletown's tax rate, 26.4 mills compared to Hartford's rate of almost 74 mills. Downtown businesses in Middletown also pay a 5.5 mills "Fire District" tax, compared to Hartford's 15% surcharge on all businesses across the city. Hartford's downtown businesses also pay a Business Improvement District tax of an additional mill.
It just seems that rather than spend potentially upwards of $5 million dollars on taking the Capitol West building, it might make a lot more sense investing in business development in Downtown Hartford. A vibrant, growing downtown will snowball into small businesses seeing that Hartford has potential, one new business at a time.
More business closures such as the cutlery shop and the cigar shop that recently closed on Asylum Street send the reverse message that small business isn't sustainable in Hartford for tax reasons, lack of traffic, lack of interest, lack of City support or whatever excuse you want to use.
Try explaining to a potential business person why most of the north side of Pratt Street is vacant, a street so quaint with it's brick walkways and lightposts that would be bustling in just about any other town. Try explaining why the Bank of America building on Main Street is vacant. A building that is probably one of the largest buildings on Main Street.
Try explaining why the XL Center shops are still virtually vacant several years after construction was completed. The only exception being a wine shop that if the truth were known, probably was just as well off at their previous location before being lured downtown and a grocery store that seems to have more employees than customers.
I would love to see the Market at Hartford 21 thrive and survive, but it takes feet on the street to do that, seven days a week. Spiritus Wines always has a great selection as well as knowledgeable staff, but again, sales are what matters and you need a steady flow of customers and convenient parking to make that happen.
We can't afford any more vacancies downtown. When was the last time anyone can recall a McDonald's closing its doors, yet the one in downtown did a couple years ago.
I spoke with a State Representative today and during the conversation I brought up the idea that I posted a few weeks ago about the old Capewell Nail Factory and turning it into an outlet mall. He thought it was a great idea and could maybe even get some state support. We talked about the numbers of people that think nothing of driving to Clinton or even to Maine to get the deals available at the outlets.
Why shouldn't that be Hartford? The answer is quite simple. The lack of leadership and the will to get things done. It is the same thing that is keeping Front Street vacant, the XL center vacant most of Pratt Street vacant and so on.
Imagine one of the vacant lots surrounding downtown Hartford, such as the parcel Channel 3 was going to use before they were driven out of Hartford by the Perez Administration, and build something like a 5 Guys Restaurant. Other businesses would grow off of that. Vacant lots attract nothing, other than crime and more blight, even if we put up pretty fences around them like the former "butt ugly" sight.
If we are going to be serious about economic development, then let's take it seriously. Having no permanent Director of Economic Development for a couple years shows that we are not serious. Instead we have the Chief Operating Officer doubling as the Economic Development Director in a Department that clearly shows it doesn't understand the meaning of economic development.
If other towns are able to develop and maintain vibrant economic areas, then we can't continue to blame it on the economy. Let's look at Buckland Hills, Westfarms and even smaller towns like Enfield and Middletown. What are they doing right?
I think the answer is pretty clear, we have a great foundation to build on here, the only thing missing is leadership to get it done.