HARTFORD, CT — In Hartford, this spring promised new milestones in the city’s rebirth as a vibrant, cultural destination: the opening of a food hall on Park Street and a culinary campus in the North End, and even a groundbreaking on the desolate land surrounding Dunkin’ Donuts Park.
Against all odds, the coronavirus pandemic has only slowed progress on those and other efforts to realize new potential in a city troubled by population loss, budget woes and fractured neighborhoods. The architects of major ongoing projects in Hartford say they’re moving forward despite the uncertainty and financial challenges presented by the COVID-19 crisis, arguing the mostly suburban metro is better positioned to recover than metropolises like New York City.
“It’s going to take a while for a place like New York to get back to some kind of normal, so therefore places like Hartford and other places in Connecticut become great, desirable options for people at a lower cost than people have been paying,” said Randy Salvatore, president and CEO of RMS Cos., which reached an agreement with the city on March 4 to develop the first phase of Downtown North.
Within two weeks, Connecticut’s schools, offices and nonessential stores would close their doors and an elderly Ridgefield man would become Connecticut’s first COVID-19 fatality. The economic impact of the pandemic caused Salvatore to pull back from a smaller project in Massachusetts, rescinding an accepted offer on a piece of property.
That’s not the case here. RMS expects to break ground in two to three months on the first phase of Downtown North, the $200 million housing and commercial project on city-owned land around the baseball stadium.
“You can’t be so fearful of the present that you forget about the future, otherwise you won’t get out of bed in the morning,” Salvatore said. “In some ways, I’m more bullish on the long term of Hartford.
On Thursday, the city approved food licenses for a dozen vendors leasing space at the Parkville Market, the long-delayed food hall from developer Carlos Mouta and his daughter, Chelsea. Another restaurant is moving into contracting now, said Chelsea Mouta, director of operations.
Five or six of those vendors plan to open for takeout sales later this month, including Disco Forno, the first brick-and-mortar restaurant of food truckers Brandon and Karen Gervickas.
“I think we’re even more optimistic than when we came here,” said Brandon Gervickas, who moved with his wife from Plymouth to Parkville last year, when the market was still scheduled to open in January. “It was just dirt on the floor in an empty building. Now we see other vendors every single day as people are coming in and out, bringing things, cleaning, just doing little stuff where we can.
The shutdowns of the pandemic have been hard on small businesses like Disco Forno, which had its food truck’s spring event calendar wiped clean. The business is too young to qualify for loans under emergency coronavirus relief, and the Gervickas haven’t received any grants.
Their debt is adding up every week. Fortunately, they never thought of Hartford as a short-term investment.
“Over 20 years, you’re gonna make a lot of money, you’re gonna save a lot of money, you’re gonna lose a lot of money. You have to look at more than two months, Brandon Gervickas said. “Everything turns around, right? Everything has a season.”
Chelsea Mouta thinks it’s about to be the season of the suburb and the mid-sized city. She recently moved to New Jersey after 10 years in New York City, and given the pandemic’s grip there, she’s hedging that most of her friends will leave, too, in favor of places where there’s more room to breathe at a much lower price.
“I think there’s going to be a shift to moving out of these major metropolises. It’s made people nervous — there’s a lot of risk when something like this happens,” she said. “I don’t know when it’ll come, but I think this is going to be huge for the Hartford area.”
Across the city, another culinary development has taken a bigger hit during the pandemic.
Last summer, Community Solutions was planning a March opening of Swift Factory, the old gold leafing facility in Northeast Hartford being repurposed as a $35 million campus of food businesses and health and community spaces.
Now, the Bloomfield-based nonprofit says the campus will start to open in September and be fully open in October.
“There isn’t a single tenant that isn’t expressing some degree of concern over the economic impact and uncertainty relating to COVID,” said Tarek Raslan, the real estate project manager for Swift. “... Some businesses that were looking to locate at Swift have had to push the pause button, others pushing forward undeterred.”
Swift is a mission-based development, geared at bringing new jobs, creative opportunities and health services into the underserved North End neighborhood. Already, Raslan was offering better prices to North End locals, Hartford residents and businesses that align with the Swift model.
He’s now taken to offering tenants breaks on their deposits, and early-termination clauses tied to potential, future COVID-19 shutdowns.
“The key is to remain flexible and do whatever you must to help your tenants through their obstacles and uncertainties,” Raslan said.
The Hartford area’s prospects have improved in recent years, after a decade of relatively poor job and economic growth, according to a Brookings Institution analysis released in March, called Metro Monitor 2020.
From 2008 to 2018, the region ranked 43rd out of 53 metro areas with at least 1 million people. The Hartford metro ranked dead last in growth of its economic output.
But between 2017 and 2018, the metro’s growth ranked 15th in the Brookings index, and first in the nation for change in jobs at young firms, which increased 25% over that year.
Shelbourne Global, a New York real estate owner and developer with a hefty portfolio downtown, is banking on the momentum carrying Hartford through this health crisis.
Since 2014, the firm and its partners have acquired some of downtown’s most recognizable office towers, including the Stilts Building at 20 Church St., Metro Center and the Gold Building at One Financial Plaza. The lights are still on in those buildings, though they’re temporarily empty with office workers at home.
This week, Chief Operating Officer Michael Seidenfeld said Shelbourne is staying its charted course in Hartford, which also includes plans to revitalize Pratt Street and the historic “Flat Iron” building on the northern edge of downtown.
No tenants have told Shelbourne they’re closing for good, Seidenfeld said. Despite the pandemic, the conditions in Hartford and the foundations of Shelbourne’s plans have not changed.
“We really view this as a passing cloud,” he said. “We’re not oblivious to the fact that it is difficult for a lot of people right now and there is a lot of uncertainty in the short-term, but we’re very much long-term.
“The core environment and the core indicators and the factors, which are necessary to be successful in Hartford, are all there. That hasn’t changed one bit.”