July 31, 2017

Millennials say Hartford's urban assets undervalued

PHOTO | Steve Laschever
PHOTO | Steve Laschever
Three Millennials who live and work in downtown Hartford — Andrea Hartman, Mitchell Jackson and Christopher Pagano — recently sat down with HBJ, to share their pros and cons of the city, and their outlook for its future.
Renovating and expanding downtown Hartford’s XL Center (above) would sustain the city’s “fun’’ factor with Millennials, who prize its diversity of people and activities.
PHOTOs | Steve Laschever
Andrea Hartman
Mitchell Jackson
Christopher Pagano

Hartford is a Millennial city. One in three of the Capital City's 125,000 residents is between the ages of 20 and 39, born in time to greet a new century.

As these new centurions graduate college and replace older generations as workers in offices, in construction, and on shop floors, they are making their voices heard as to what they want and need, like and dislike, about the communities where they live and work. Downtown Hartford is among them.

Millennials' influence and appeal came into clear focus when General Electric Co. announced it was moving its Fairfield headquarters to Boston. GE cited its desire to be, among other things, among a vibrant cluster of young, educated, innovative professionals from which it could mine corporate talent.

More recently, Aetna Inc. — one of Hartford's most influential corporate patrons — said it will relocate its headquarters, and some 250 jobs, from the city's Asylum Hill neighborhood, to New York City's Manhattan borough.

That prompted the question: So what is it about Hartford that appeals — or not — to Millennials? What do they like or not about the city, particularly downtown Hartford, which is gaining about 2,100 new faces when UConn's downtown campus opens in late August? What can be done to retain the city's native Millennials and attract new ones?

For answers, the Hartford Business Journal recently invited three Millennials to its downtown office for an hour-long, taped discussion of those and other questions. The trio — all working professionals downtown who also live in or on the edge of the center city — candidly shared their insights.

In brief, they are enamored with downtown Hartford's amenities — places to go, things to see and do, places to dine and drink. They see the new ballpark as a gem. Street safety isn't their concern, except for annoying panhandlers and the lawless dirt bikes roaming city streets. A downtown supermarket is low on their list of priorities, but a revamped XL Center is.

Meet our three Millennial panelists:

Andrea Hartman — The Aurora, Ill., native moved to Hartford about two years ago this month. Andie, 36, previously worked in engineering and operations consulting for a number of years. Currently, she is pursuing an entrepreneurial venture in the financial sector. She lives in a brownstone on Capitol Avenue, in the city's Frog Hollow neighborhood.

Mitchell Jackson — Born in Hartford but raised in the Charleston, S.C. area, Mitch, 32, is managing partner at Northeast Payments, and an IT project manager for Optum. He is also chair of the Hartford Young Professionals & Entrepreneurs (HYPE), a group of the MetroHartford Alliance. Mitch resides in downtown Hartford.

Christopher Pagano — A Manchester native, Chris, 28, works in enterprise risk management at Travelers. He is a five-year Hartford Young Professionals & Entrepreneurs member and vice chair of its ambassadors committee. He owns a downtown condominium.

Why did you decide to move downtown?

Chris: I knew it would be very convenient living downtown with work and so many of my friends here. It's just so convenient for dining and entertainment and nightlife, it just seemed like a no-brainer at the time.

Mitch: My job was downtown with UnitedHealth Group. A lot of my friends came down. I went to UConn so we were always congregating, eating and meeting up for lunch. So, I [decided] I might as well just move and check out the scene. There was great apartment pricing that was incredibly affordable.

I think that's the big thing with Hartford, why Millennials moved downtown, because there is affordable housing, for the most part, or there was at the time. Now, there's a lot of development going on and the price ranges fluctuate. In a sense, our generation has commitment issues, so renting is the way to go usually.

It's one of those things where if you're renting for a year, you can do your lease year to year and see where you are. If you decide to get a home within the Hartford region, or out, or if you get some kind of work opportunity, then you have those opportunities. From what I know from my friends who are also Millennials, being flexible is huge, especially with work-life balance, just living, going out.

Andie: I guess I have a slightly different story. My previous life, I was a management consultant in Boston, so I was living in Back Bay, kind of in the brownstones there. I actually did a project at Aetna for about five months, so I got familiar with downtown [Hartford] and got a full-time offer from them a couple years ago.

Everyone said, 'live in West Hartford, live in West Hartford.' But I actually have a lot of experience in [Hartford], from having been here. I looked around different parts of [the city]. I actually live on Capitol Avenue, in the little, baby brownstones there.

So I feel like it's a really, kind of small flavor of Boston life. I don't have a car. It's kind of the brownstone living for about 30 percent of the price that I was paying in Boston. [Hartford] has a lot of the amenities of a lot of other Northeast cities at a fraction of the cost, including the walkability and so forth.

What's one thing that stands out as a comparison between Hartford and Boston?

Andie: Cost of living is huge. Boston's a great city, for sure. Obviously, it draws a lot of Millennials. To really feel like I'm part of the city of Hartford, I volunteer at Bushnell Park and joined Hartford Young Professionals and Entrepreneurs (HYPE). There's a lot of that obviously in Boston, too, but I feel like you can really get a foothold here and feel like you're part of the city, which I like a lot.

What's your biggest turnoff about downtown?

Mitch: One thing I hear is that people say they don't feel safe downtown at night and things like that. I've lived here. It's completely safe. It's just that there aren't a lot of bodies on the street at night, so it seems like you might be the only person out there if you're going out for drinks with friends and you end up walking home by yourself.

Especially if you're a young lady in the city, you might feel a little threatened in some ways even though the city itself is extremely safe. There's police patrols everywhere.

Usually, the worst thing that could ever happen is a panhandler comes up to you and asks for money. I mean, that's the biggest threat around here.

Chris: Panhandling is a bit of an issue for me. My commute is a walk to work from my condo, so I spend a lot of time on the streets of Hartford. Walking to and from places and almost every intersection, someone's asking for money. It's just part of city life and I think it's true wherever you go.

Do downtown events like last fall's craft beer festival and the new ballpark add to the city's “fun'' quotient?

Mitch: As far as the ballpark is concerned, I truly think it's been a very delightful surprise. There's been a lot of naysayers. … It was given to us. It's done. There's nothing we can really do about it. We just have to be there and support it. But at the end of the day, it's one of the nation's top minor-league ballparks.

When I went there on opening day and a few games after that, it's been a packed house. Incredible energy. Incredible atmosphere. It makes me excited for baseball in Hartford, because I'm a baseball fan.

Chris: I certainly can recognize and appreciate all the controversy around the ballpark. But now that it's here, it's hard to argue that it isn't a huge success. Almost all the games are sold out. (Editor's Note: Yard Goats confirm this is true for many of its home games).

Like Mitch said, there's just great enthusiasm and positivity when you go to the stadium. It feels good to be part of that, being part of the city and seeing all these people coming and visiting and enjoying what the city has to offer.

Not only that, it brings people to all the businesses downtown, too. Before and after the games, people are getting dinner and drinks. Maybe they're spending time just exploring the area, getting to see Hartford, having a reason to come to the city that they never had before.

What must Hartford (and the region) do to attract young talent?

Andie: I think by attracting people with the arts and diversity and those kinds of things, that's what Millennials want — walkability, affordability, access to all the stuff in the Northeast. It's a great balance of interestingness and price. I think playing up the more kind of funky, ethnic flavor of Hartford would help a lot. We can't compete with Boston. We can't compete with Manhattan. We can't compete with a lot of places. But there's a lot here that you can't easily get in those places. I think Hartford has the interestingness of a much bigger city.

Mitch: Hartford is a Capital City with a small-town feel, whose culture is as rich and diverse as the residents. We have to play to our strengths. We're not going to be a Boston or New York. We can compete with Boston and New York, but we have to compete with them on our terms, and what we have, like insurance or advanced manufacturing and things like that. So, in that sense, there is a lot that Hartford can offer Millennials.

From the people that I've known who have moved here, a lot of the common reactions that I hear is, 'Wow, I didn't know Hartford had this,' or 'this is incredible,' or 'Hartford's a lot better than I thought,' things like that, where there's all these misperceptions.

The city has so much to offer. I think what we need to focus on is what we have and how we can build on that vs. having what everyone else has. You know, Roger Federer isn't competing against LeBron James. They have to stay in their wheelhouse.

In Hartford's wheelhouse, we have Dillon Stadium for soccer, which we should totally build up and improve upon and just bring from all the regions the kids that come down and play soccer.

As far as the XL Center is concerned, I think we should renovate it completely and expand it, and add more seats. That way, you can draw bigger artists because they'll get more revenue from ticket sales. Then, we won't have to compete with the casinos.

Chris: HYPE's doing their part to reach out to all the businesses in the area, and make them aware of what we're doing so we can get their young employees to come and meet us. Part of HYPE's mission is getting young professionals to understand what the area has to offer, showing them that this is a great place to live and work.

How concerned are you about the city's fiscal woes and publicity surrounding Aetna's plans to relocate HQs to Manhattan?

Mitch: Aetna is only moving their top executives, about 250-plus people to the Manhattan office in order to compete in that space. Good luck to them because that's a very savage pool there. My internship was at Aetna when I was in school, so I have nothing but positive things to say.

But as far as Hartford is concerned, in the short term, we'll be fine. I think it's more important now than ever that businesses unite, especially with the MetroHartford Alliance, and figure out ways to keep Hartford afloat. Once that gets laid out over the next couple years, I think we'll better understand if the city is truly ripe for people to move, grow and pursue a career here.

The legacy here is incredible. The culture is amazing. The people are great. I think it's built to succeed. I honestly think Hartford is in the position where there's too much history here for the city too fail. And too many people here care about the city.

You can see that with the fireworks that the city cut funding for last year but it was privately funded this year. There's too many people who care about this city to watch it fail. So, there's hope for the long term.

Andie: I'm actually, and have been for some time, looking at entrepreneurship in the city. The current situation makes me nervous — I'm sure it makes other people nervous — you want to see how things shake out before you commit and invest in the city.

For me personally, this holding pattern is frustrating. In fact, I'd almost rather it shake out. I know a lot of people say that they don't know what the tax rate is going forward and whether they should invest in property or not. The uncertainty at the state level and local level is the bad thing.

Obviously, nobody wants Hartford to go bankrupt, but it's happened in other cities. It can be a cleansing process on some level if it works out.

Chris: It would be detrimental or very ill-advised during a coming election year to let the Capital City go bankrupt. If Hartford wants Millennials to become lifetime residents of the city, the people that are thinking about staying here long term are thinking about the financials of the city and of the state, obviously. It's not just a Hartford problem. It extends throughout Connecticut.

Does downtown Hartford need a supermarket?

Chris: Downtown is very walkable. But people that live in the suburbs still get in their cars and drive to the grocery store, so why should it be any different for us. I don't think it's an issue.

There are plenty of grocery stores in Hartford and the surrounding towns. Personally, I use a delivery service for my groceries. … There are plenty of small places that if you need something in a pinch, you can stop on your way home.

Mitch: It would be nice if I could walk to a Stop & Shop or a Whole Foods, … but we have sufficient delis and semi-markets.

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