For a couple of weeks I’ve been thinking and writing about doubling the population of greater Hartford over the next 25 years, and I’m back to a core question: what is, or should be, Hartford’s plan for growth?
Restating the fundamental point: Greater Hartford, pretty much any metropolitan area, needs economic growth. If the economy isn’t growing, it’s shrinking, and a shrinking economy means fewer jobs and fewer good paying jobs. Fewer jobs means shrinking population or growing unemployment or both. Growing unemployment means more poverty and a greater burden on the community to support those who aren’t able to support themselves. Growth must be the objective.
Whether we can agree that doubling the population is the goal, at least we should be able to agree that greater Hartford needs substantial economic growth. It has been more or less stable, or worse, for multiple decades, and the trend must be reversed.
Growth may occur by accident, but it’s much more likely to occur if the community plans for it and works toward growth.
Does greater Hartford have a growth plan? There’s the Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS) created last year by CRCOG, the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving and the MetroHartford Alliance. It’s a five-year plan that establishes modest growth objectives. I’ve been told that greater Hartford has had a series of CED Strategies, because if your city has no CEDS, it cannot receive federal economic development grants. In other words, having a CEDS allows Hartford to check the box on the federal grant application, but it doesn’t mean Hartford is actually doing anything to implement the plan. Greater Hartford’s previous CED strategies enabled the region to receive such grants, but the strategies have not resulted in much change. I’d guess that most people in greater Hartford are unaware of the current CEDS and the change it proposes. Have the City of Hartford and the surrounding towns endorsed the plan? Have they committed resources to realize the benefits of the plan? Are they actively working on it? I doubt it.
In other words, as a practical matter greater Hartford has a functional void when it comes to planning for its future. A plan that sits on a shelf isn’t worth a lot, and that’s more or less what we’ve had. (Now, I’ll admit to being less than completely informed, and some folks will defend their work on the leading edge of greater Hartford’s economic development planning. I’m not writing to criticize what they’ve done. The point is that if the people in the community don’t know about the plan, and if they aren’t invested in achieving the goals of the plan, the plan isn’t worth much.)
I believe that until we restructure our governance, we will continue to have a functional void. But I’m not talking about that today. I’m talking about my strategy for economic growth in greater Hartford.
Skilled planner is among the many things that I am not. Planning is critical to success in complicated endeavors, and I can do my part, but I don’t have serious planning expertise. Still, some planning basics are obvious.
The first is to start with the end in mind (thank you, Stephen Covey). We’ve got that – we want serious long-term economic growth. We need more employers, more jobs. And we want good jobs, relatively high paying jobs, because a well-paid population buys goods and services at a relatively high rate, which generates significant additional employment.
The second basic, I think, is to have an inventory of the assets that we have that could be useful in achieving the objective. Those assets include an intelligent and well-educated population, a good employment base, significant cultural, religious, ethnic and racial diversity, multiple colleges and universities, an improving airport, some specialized manufacturing expertise.
If you’re finding yourself thinking “yes, but” and then listing the things that are wrong with greater Hartford, please stop. Stop because if we’re planning, we’re first talking about the objective and the assets that we have to work with it – the obstacles that we have to overcome can be addressed later. More importantly, stop because “yes, but” is a bad habit in greater Hartford – we tend to greet each new idea with a phalanx of problems, get depressed and give up. Stop listing and worrying about the problems and focus for a while on the positives and the possibilities.
Back to the assets. Greater Hartford has, I believe, one asset that gives it a great advantage over just about all the similarly sized metropolitan areas in the country: proximity to New York City and to Boston. Two of the most important cities in the world are essentially within commuting distance of greater Hartford. They are growing, perhaps not like the fastest growing cities in the country, but growing. As they grow, they seem to be sustaining and increasing their importance in the country and in the world. Although it’s possible that one or both of those cities could begin to decline and become less relevant in the world, my guess is that’s unlikely.
Hartford’s competition, cities like Raleigh and Nashville and New Orleans and Indianapolis and Buffalo, must generate on their own all of the opportunities necessary to grow. We can generate opportunities, too, but we also have the potential to capitalize on the economic growth opportunities that New York City and Boston create every day, every month, every year.
I’d make New York City and Boston the focus of greater Hartford’s economic development plan. One focus would be on how greater Hartford could support the activities that go on in those two cities. So, for example, a strategy could be that greater Hartford would become a major supplier of food and food services to those cities. Sure, there already are people in that industry, but the industry is changing dramatically and consolidating. People in large cities are cooking less; some of the newest studio apartments have no kitchen facilities beyond a small refrigerator and a microwave oven. People want more than fast food; they want freshly prepared meals for takeout or delivery. Restaurants and other food services will need significant new services that deliver all of the ingredients, ready to cook, so that they can deliver fresh, hot, prepared meals to their customers. Greater Hartford is almost uniquely positioned geographically to provide wholesale food services of that kind to both cities.
A second strategy could be to become the back office to major professional firms. I know of one accounting firm that opened an office in Hartford not because it’s a good market to sell services into, but because Hartford has a surplus of unusually well-trained professionals and support staff that can be hired at lower cost than in New York City and Boston. They get quality workers to support their efforts in the major markets, workers who are close enough to be in those cities whenever they’re needed. The workers get high-level professional work, exposure to two of the most sophisticated business communities in the world, and the benefits of a living environment that is stimulating, fun and pleasant without the frenetic downtown life of the big city or its crushing cost of living. (Yes, the cost of living is high in greater Hartford, and part of a comprehensive plan would address that issue, but the cost of living in New York City and Boston make greater Hartford’s current cost of living attractive. Relative to them, our cost of living is an asset.)
Feeding New York City and Boston, either with food or back-office professionals, probably isn’t enough on its own to drive greater Hartford’s economy; they could be part of a plan, but we would need more. Those two ideas serve as examples of the kind of industries that might thrive in the shadow of the big cities. More creative thinking and a more insightful look into the future is necessary to develop the kind of plans that could cause quantum change. Perhaps the time is coming when big-city employers will need off-site centers for large-scale employee training at a reasonable cost – how about two-day 1000-employee training activities in the Convention Center, a less expensive facility than those in the big city and easily accessible, with faculty provided by UConn’s business school or other local educational institutions? Is there, or will there be, a market for centralized tech support services within an easy drive of the corporate headquarters?
We don’t have to think of all the ideas. That’s what entrepreneurs do. We won’t create a consolidated food service to serve the big cities, but we can show the entrepreneur who wants to do it how greater Hartford would be the ideal location.
The point is, there are a lot of interesting and exciting ideas being born in Boston and New York City every day, and some of those ideas are opportunities for greater Hartford. If we don’t grab them, Worcester or Springfield or Providence might. It doesn’t have to be that way. Greater Hartford could have a northeast corridor economic development SWAT team that identifies opportunities and spear-heads focused efforts to take advantage of them. Such a SWAT team, of course, would have trouble making headway if it didn’t speak in an authoritative way for our entire metropolitan area, both to existing and potential new employers in the area and their potential customers. That’s where some governmental reorganization would help.
Look again at assets. Greater Hartford already has a significant logistics business base in Windsor and Bloomfield, with plenty of room to grow. It’s one potential area from which to operate large-scale businesses that supply Boston and New York City daily. We already have a large wholesale food market in Hartford, with plenty of room in the south meadows to create a restaurant and food service supply industry. We have the Convention Center, which is underused, and we have a small but expandable downtown hotel business. Hartford has available office space to house major back-office operations for New York City and Boston professional firms, and we have the educational institutions to support the continuing professional education of the people who live here.
I know, you can’t stop thinking of the problems. Yes, we don’t have the best infrastructure to connect us to Boston or New York City, but train service is improving and could be improved significantly with some focus and political will. The nature of road transportation is undergoing dramatic change with electric and autonomous vehicles. Driving distances in the northeast are short enough that, with expanded availability of charging stations, electric vehicles are likely to be predominant in our future. Yes, we have some poverty and blight issues in our core city, but the truth is that those problems are pretty small compared to the problems many similar-sized metropolitan areas face. Buffalo’s stock of dilapidated and abandoned housing dwarfs Hartford’s, New Orleans was blighted before Katrina and has decades of work ahead of it. Hartford’s problems need to be managed, but the good news is that those problems are manageable.
What I’ve said here may not reflect greater Hartford’s future. I’m not a savant. My suggestions are just a few of many visions that could be greater Hartford’s future. If we care about this place, we should be planning for the future in some way that is effective and productive. We need a coherent and intelligent plan for greater Hartford, and we need to act on that plan, boldly. Fundamentally, that requires that we get together and get to work. We’ll need some help from the state, but the task is ours. It’s our community and we have to do it.