December 17, 2018

Hartford's helping hand

Photo | CT Mirror
Photo | CT Mirror
Gov. Malloy in the XL Center. While the arena received some upgrades during his tenure, Malloy was unable to secure a desired $250 million in renovation funds.
Michael Freimuth, Executive Director, CRDA

A key part of the Malloy administration's economic-development strategy was to revive some of Connecticut's key, somewhat dormant cities.

Hartford in particular was in rough shape coming out of the Great Recession.

Department of Economic and Community Development Commissioner Catherine Smith credits Malloy for recognizing early Hartford's dire financial and economic pictures, and taking steps to resolve them. One was creating the Capital Region Development Authority (CRDA) from the bones of its predecessor, the former Capital City Economic Development Authority.

Since then, CRDA, whose executive director, Michael Freimuth, is a former Stamford official with a knack for dealmaking and who is credited with enabling the city Malloy once led as mayor to undergo an economic-development revival, has converted 23 of downtown Hartford's oldest office buildings into 1,558 apartments/condominiums with a construction value of $490 million. Hundreds more are in the development pipeline, just as CRDA extends its redevelopment vision to Hartford's other neighborhoods and surrounding suburbs.

Aside from other such CRDA-linked Hartford projects, such as the remake of the Bowles Park housing project and the former Swift factory, both in the North End, the suburban redevelopment roster includes Newington's ex-National Welding site and East Hartford's Silver Lane corridor and Founders Plaza office park.

"I think it's been unbelievably effective,'' Smith said of CRDA. "I give the governor full credit on this one. He said, 'our Capital City needs investment. It's beginning to falter. It doesn't look the way it should. … We took an existing entity and we re-upped it. We brought in Mike Freimuth. He's been a tremendous asset."

CRDA's investments have been accompanied by other major downtown developments in recent years — opening of UConn's new satellite campus, construction of Dunkin' Donuts Park, ongoing redevelopment of Dillon Stadium, and the arrival of new employers, including Infosys, Stanley Black & Decker's new tech center and an insurtech hub — that have begun to change the perception of the city, whose companies are desperately trying to attract their next-generation workforce.

Last spring, state lawmakers also reluctantly approved a $500 million financial-rescue package for Hartford, which was near bankruptcy, and appointed a financial oversight panel.

In one of his last acts as chair of the state Bond Commission, Malloy and his fellow commissioners in September gave thumbs-up on $52.7 million for CRDA-linked Hartford projects, including a downtown grocery; and as many as 200 new apartments near Dunkin' Donuts Park, in the city's Downtown North quadrant.

Malloy, however, was not successful in securing from the legislature $250 million for a major overhaul of the XL Center, and now the Lamont administration will have to decide the future of the aging venue. A less-expensive XL plan is now in the works.

Meantime, Smith recalled a stalled legislative proposal at the state Capitol to clone CRDA into several regional agencies that could ignite similar redevelopment in other needy Connecticut cities.

"We've started, but there's much more work to do, and particularly in … some of the harder hit communities in our state, the Bridgeports and the Waterburys," she said.

Freimuth says various iterations of "a statewide CRDA have been discussed,'' but added, "the real issue is capacity to carry out projects … having the management skills, financial underwriting, fiduciary tracking and construction oversight critical to make a project work.''

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