Hartford, CT — Corporate worker bees may not be able to work in their downtown Hartford offices in the pandemic, but they soon will be able to at least work outside near their workspaces.
Beginning Aug. 1 – and hopefully running through the end of October – a pilot program offering free, around-the-clock WiFi access will be coming to the brick-paved Pratt Street.
The program, which will follow social distancing guidelines, is aimed at not only bringing life back to downtown that has been sapped by the pandemic but also help businesses along Pratt Street and elsewhere in the central business district to stay afloat.
“The honest truth is that we really need to get people to come back downtown,” Tim Moore, a principal at Blue Haus Group, a Hartford-based real estate and economic development firm that developed the project and lined up financing. “If we can create a destination for them to work remotely, I think we will get them to come back to downtown and support the businesses and the restaurants.”
One of those businesses is The Tobacco Shop at 89 Pratt St., now in business 100 years – the last nine under the stewardship of Gerry Grate.
“This gives an opportunity to not only safely come out and work but it also gives all the businesses on the street an opportunity to do retail with these business people, students, whoever,” Grate said.
Grate said it has been a struggle for downtown businesses in the pandemic because merchants rely heavily on those who work in the city. To bring people back, it will be crucial to make them feel safe, Grate said, and working remotely outdoors could be one way to help do that.
“Since the pandemic, Pratt Street pretty much – and downtown, in general – has become a ghost town,” Grate said. “There is a confidence problem. Nobody wants to come out because of concern of the COVID. I understand that.”
The program seeks to attract not only downtown workers of all kinds but students and visitors to the city, Moore said.
So far, a third of the estimated $30,000 has been raised to get the project up-and-running. The first, $10,000 was donated by Shelbourne Global Solutions LLC, a major downtown commercial landlord and owner of the much of the south side of Pratt Street.
Moore said he is confident that he will be able to raise the remaining funds to carry the program through the end of October.
Leadership Greater Hartford, a non-profit that seeks to strengthen communities by reaching across racial and economic divides, is considering dedicating a portion of Pratt Street for Hartford students in summer STEM courses who don’t have access to adequate internet service, Moore said.
In the morning and early afternoon, those using the WiFi will do so on the sidewalks. Moore said the Hartford Business Improvement District has agreed to provide tables and chairs. BID has used that furniture for a program, now in its fourth year, that closes down Pratt Street for part of the day for pedestrians only and entertainment.
Jordan Polon, executive director of the BID, said the pandemic has forced changes in the use of Pratt Street this year. The street is blocked off later, at 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday, rather than at lunchtime as in the past and there aren’t gatherings like the popular Salsa social, Polon said.
“Working remotely is hard for a lot of people,” Polon said. “It might be a place where your productivity is the same, but there is something that feeds your soul about being around other people. This could give people that connectivity that they are lacking in their homes.”
The service will be managed by Backstage Networks, which provides temporary WiFi to large conventions, concerts and other events. Through a digital dashboard, technicians can use “heat maps” to track where people might not be practicing social distancing. It also can provide “touchless menus” for restaurants.
The technicians also are able to monitor to ensure that WiFi is being used for appropriate purposes, Moore said.
The WiFi will be strong at a level that 300 people could do teleconferencing from the street at one time, plus 20% more capacity. Social distancing will not allow that many people on the street at one time, however, but Moore said the point is there will be plenty of internet strength to tap into.