I thought it would be good to restate some of the basic premises of my blog, for a couple of reasons. First, if you’re a regular reader, it may help to refocus on the basic points I’ve been making. Second, if you’re one of thousands who have come to this blog sometime after it first appeared last year, you might me wondering what this is all about. (Those thousands of new readers all were among those untold (and unseen) millions President Trump saw at his inauguration.)
Starting with the end in mind, I believe that the City of Hartford should be merged with several of the surrounding towns to make one city of several hundred thousand people. I have used as an example merging Hartford and the seven contiguous towns of Windsor, Bloomfield, West Hartford, Newington, Wethersfield, East Hartford and South Windsor. Other people might suggest other configurations, such as also including Farmington, Manchester and Glastonbury, or going smaller and merging only towns west of the river.
Exactly which towns should be merged with Hartford is less important than the underlying purpose of the concept, which is to bring us together as one community with one government.
Merging Hartford and several surrounding towns is a radical idea, but it’s time. I think the last radical idea around here was building a bridge across the river. The time has come for us to think outside of all the little boxes we’ve built for ourselves, the boxes we call Newington and Wethersfield and the like.
Why should the city and the towns merge? Plenty of reasons, I’m sure, but here are a few the ones that appeal to me:
1. We are 350,000 people living and working in one geographic area. By any definition, we are a community, but by virtue of having divided ourselves into separate municipalities, we don’t work together as one community. We don’t plan together, we don’t build together, we don’t solve problems together, and we are all the worse off for it.
2. Economic growth is vital to the future of greater of Hartford. Our economy has been stagnant or shrinking for decades, and we need to do something about it. We are at an extreme disadvantage competing for economic opportunities against other metropolitan areas our size, because our multiple-town governance structure severely inhibits our ability to respond to opportunities.
3. We are wasting a lot of money. How much money? No one knows, but $100 million a year is as good a guess as any. What could we do with an extra $100 million a year? Reduce taxes. Improve our schools. Develop an environment attractive to employers. Become a home for entrepreneurial activity. Almost anything would be better than paying for ten fire departments, ten police departments, ten boards of education, ten parks and rec departments.
How do I know that we would be better off merging into one city of a few hundred thousand people? If you want absolute, unquestionable, inarguable proof, I can’t give it to you. Two things persuade me:
First, almost everyone I talk to in this area agrees that how we govern ourselves currently is a problem. Some of them think a merger is a bad idea, some of them think it’s an impossible objective, but practically no one says that having ten towns is better than having one city. Many people agree our governance structure is expensive and inefficient but are afraid that a merger would cause them to lose control of their schools or would drag them into the sink hole they imagine when they think of Hartford. Still, pretty much everyone agrees the current structure doesn’t make sense.
Second, essentially no metropolitan area in the U.S. the size of greater Hartford governs itself the way we do. Providence is the only one that even remotely resembles our governance structure. If our approach to governing ourselves were a better way to be organized, at least a few cities around the country would be following us, but none are. Why would they? Hartford lags all similarly sized metropolitan areas in economic growth and in population growth. No one wants to be like us.
I’ve been thinking, writing and talking to people about this problem for well over a year, and my thoughts about the subject continue to evolve. Lately I find myself thinking less about how greater Hartford should restructure, and more about how we are powerfully resistant to change of any kind in our region. Every suggestion here immediately is branded a bad idea: a new minor league baseball stadium is a bad idea, merging towns is a bad idea, highway tolls are a bad idea, solar farms are a bad idea. We all complain about greater Hartford, but no one wants to do anything about it.
I wrote a couple of weeks ago about Middletown Mayor Florsheim and his comments about what he calls our “reverse state pride.” We live in a great place, a great part of the country, with a great history, and we’ve sat by and watched it unwind slowly since the 1980s. We can see it, we don’t like, and yet we don’t do anything about it.
As some of you know, I’m a professional football fan. Some of my best ideas come from watching and thinking about pro football; maybe that’s why I’m so out-of-step in Connecticut. Anyway, I was watching the introduction to the American Football Conference Championship game, and CBS broadcast scenes of Nashville, with clips of fans talking about how much the team means to the city and what a great place Nashville is.
I write about Nashville from time to time, because greater Nashville’s population is about the same size as greater Hartford’s, and because Nashville is thriving and growing, and Hartford isn’t. Nashville is particularly irksome to me because in the same two years that Hartford lost the opportunity to bring the New England Patriots to town and lost the Hartford Whalers, Nashville acquired a National Football League team and a National Hockey League team. People argue with me and say it’s apples and oranges because Nashville has the music industry. Surely they do now, but they had the Grand Ole Opry for decades before the music industry took off, and all that time Hartford had the insurance industry. And Pratt & Whitney. What have we built on that enormous head start?
The difference between Hartford and Nashville isn’t the music industry. The difference was captured in one sentence in the CBS introduction to the AFC Championship game. With scenes of Nashville streaming across the screen, one Tennessee Titan fan said simply this:
“There is so much forward energy in Nashville.”
That’s all. If you think two professional sports teams arriving in Nashville and two professional sports teams leaving Hartford was a coincidence and nothing more, okay. Just tell me the last time you heard someone say “There is so much forward energy in Hartford.”
There’s no forward energy in greater Hartford because we’ve divided our community into ten or more separate towns, and we direct our civic energies toward those towns instead of the greater community we all share. Our towns distract us from our true community, distract us from working together. Only when we’re one city will our energy become focused on moving forward.
Enjoy the Super Bowl! See you next week.