Millennial-driven groups' pro-Hartford sentiments aim to woo young professionals

BY Joe Cooper

HBJ Photos | Steve Laschever
HBJ Photos | Steve Laschever
Local young professionals (from left to right) Ali Lazowski, Nicole Baccaro and Hilary Stoudt have launched a pro-Hartford group/movement billed as Restart The HART.
MetroHartford Alliance's young professional group HYPE started a movement 12 years ago to get more young professionals engaged with the Capital City.

Now it has company.

Numerous Millennial groups have sprouted up in recent years to promote downtown Hartford and the region as a place to live, work and play and counter what they say are misconceptions plaguing the city about public safety, and a lack of entertainment, parking and apartment housing.

Varying in size, groups range from those hosting or promoting professional and social gatherings downtown and in nearby suburbs, to others working to change negative stereotypes they believe are limiting the city's and region's potential.

The groups, some of which are grassroots and others created by companies or nonprofits, are joining HYPE to woo more Millennials downtown at a time when city employers are desperately trying to recruit young professionals, especially as aging Baby Boomers head toward retirement over the next decade.

They have their work cut out for them. Only about 22.5 percent of metro Hartford's population is made up of Millennials, ranking the region 78th among the U.S.' largest 100 metro areas in terms of concentration of young people, according to an analysis by the Brookings Institution.

Some group leaders said one of their main goals is to show how Hartford has changed in recent years with the addition of new assets like public transportation (LimeBike and the Hartford rail line), sports (Hartford Yard Goats and Hartford Athletic), additional housing and a growing downtown college scene, in addition to a strong arts and restaurant culture.

Ryan Keating, vice president of West Hartford's Michael J. Keating Agency, has a hand in several Greater Hartford networking and advocacy groups.

The 30-year-old insurance executive said groups are working to get a larger pool of the 90,000 people commuting to Hartford everyday to stay downtown and enjoy its many offerings after they clock out of work.

Keating co-founded Future Leaders of West Hartford (Flow), which encourages Millennials to engage professional, educational and philanthropic opportunities in West Hartford. He's also a member of new Greater Hartford groups, including Restart The HART and Sparc, and hopes to create a community-building organization called Success Greater Hartford.

All three groups host networking and social events and have their own missions.

Restart The HART, for example, is a 30-member group that launched in May to change the dialogue in Hartford, underscoring the good instead of bad on its social media pages and at local social gatherings.

Sparc, or Suburban Professionals Achieving Real Change, is a group of young professionals forging relationships at networking events to connect the regional business community.

Others include Junior League of Hartford, Bushnell Young Professionals and Playhouse on Park's Young Professionals Advisory Board, which use fundraising and meetings to spur more Millennial theater engagement in Greater Hartford.

Added together, these groups are meeting over happy hour and other events weekly.

Keating said some group leaders are worried about competing for a limited pool of prospective members, but he thinks that's wrong-minded.

He said groups have a common goal and must work together.

"If we look at ourselves as competitors and not allies, you start to alienate opportunity," he said. "If you get enough people on board that want to see the city succeed, it creates a ripple effect."

HYPE Executive Director Kim Bishop said her 4,000-member group, including participants working and living in and out of Hartford, supports young professionals enrolling in other local initiatives because it benefits the city.

She said she doesn't see a competitive threat.

Even as new groups spawn in Greater Hartford, Bishop said HYPE's membership over the last five years has remained steady, indicating they are meeting the needs of their base.

Changing the dialogue

The founding ambassadors of Restart The HART, a five-month old group gaining attention for its pro-Hartford advocacy, plan on collaborating with HYPE and others to build like-minded connections.

Co-founding ambassador Nicole Baccaro, a 26-year-old Berlin resident and supply chain specialist at United Technologies Research Center in East Hartford, said Restart The HART's biggest challenge is defining their mission either as a movement or as a social group.

With about 750 followers across Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, Restart The HART uses its social accounts as a directory of Hartford's latest offerings. Original and reshared posts recently note the Parkville Market groundbreaking, the Riverfront Recapture Food Truck Festival, a par three golf course at Hartford's Dunkin' Donuts Park, newly proposed apartments or the view from Thomas Hooker Brewery at Colt.

Working to "reclaim Hartford," ambassadors are also gathering at happy hours or hosting "public meetups" at venues like Upward Hartford to develop ideas on attracting new members, improve messaging or organize future hangouts. The group gains new members at each event, Baccaro said.

Their direction is being mapped out by a cast of Millennials and other founding ambassadors, including Ali Lazowski, founder of Bare Life, a startup maker of allergen-friendly foods and recipes, and Hilary Stoudt, an associate real estate manager for realty firm CBRE in Hartford.

Other leaders include startup entrepreneurs and employees at large companies including Travelers Cos., Pratt & Whitney and Stanley Black & Decker.

"I think there is a real demand in the area for young professionals to be proud of where they're from and Restart The HART," Baccaro said.

Just a few doors down from the MetroHartford Alliance on Pratt Street, the co-founders of marketing firm Lumi Agency have created a digital and social group — "We Hartford" — aimed at bringing people together in the city at happy hours and area events.

We Hartford co-founders Melissa Melonson, 34, and Cara Stellato, 29, are gaining attention online through their interview series showcasing city restaurants, including Chango Rosa and The Russell Grab & Go, Real Art Ways, incubator space Upward Hartford and others.

The group's "Make Hartford Yours" series has more than 371,600 views online, and as many as 100 people have attended its happy hour events held at newer restaurants. Melonson said We Hartford has been successful thus far based on an influx of positive comments both online and at events, which are mainly targeted to Millennials.

Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin, who at 39 years old is just a few years outside of being a Millennial himself, is also a staunch supporter of the group's efforts, including taking to social media to promote its videos.

"We're seeing more and more energy and activity in Hartford and it's great to see groups trying to highlight that and build on it," the mayor said.