The news from South Windsor this week demonstrated beautifully both how our town system of government frustrates real economic growth and why we never will change.
The Hartford Courant reported Monday that concern is growing in South Windsor that the rapid development of warehouses and fulfillment centers is bad for the town. One resident proposed a one-year moratorium on the creation of any new, similar facilities.
From the point of view of the citizens of South Windsor, the concern is real and understandable. The urge to limit or shape the development of real estate in our towns is almost universal, from the smallest towns to the largest cities. Fighting development is an American sport, a competition that seems at times almost life and death. If I had my choice, I wouldn’t want my town flooded with warehouses, either.
From the point of view of the citizens of greater Hartford, however, the picture looks quite different. The health of greater Hartford depends on economic growth. If we aren’t creating jobs, we’re losing them, and as we lose them, we lose our ability to build and grow the kind of community we all want.
Let’s assume, just for the sake of discussion, that the growth of the warehouse and fulfillment center industry will result in positive economic growth for the great Hartford community – more jobs, more spending, more secondary jobs, broader tax base, etc. I know, we can argue about whether warehouses and fulfillment centers have that effect, but I suspect they do. And some will argue that other industries drive economic growth more effectively, and I’m sure that’s true, but the question is which of those industries is moving to Hartford? Employers have not been flocking to central Connecticut in recent decades, and I’m not sure greater Hartford can afford the luxury of being too picky when an employer comes calling.
Okay, assume that growth of this particular industry is good for greater Hartford. Then the fool-hardiness of our town governance structure is obvious: We are giving our towns a veto over the greater community’s economic development. Of course the people of South Windsor may be opposed, but they may have the only locations the industry wants. Suppose Intel declared that it was buying Kingswood Oxford School and turning it into a facility that will employ 8,000 people. Of course the people of West Hartford would object, but the rest of greater Hartford would celebrate our community’s great good fortune.
What of the impact in the immediate vicinity? Won’t it change the character of the community, increase the value of some properties and decrease the value of others? Won’t there be traffic, and dust, and noise, and maybe even people who don’t look like us? Well, yes, there will be change, and yes, it won’t be exclusively positive. We can’t have growth without change. If each town says “no” to projects that will change the character of the town, greater Hartford will not grow. If we want our community to grow, we must say yes to opportunity, despite the fact that the opportunity may bring some unwelcome change.
If South Windsor were a part one city composed of Hartford and the contiguous towns, one city with one city council, one tax base, and one economic development department, that city might very well be considering how to leverage the opportunity to become a major northeast distribution hub that employs thousands of people and energizes the region, not considering a moratorium. Alas, South Windsor is its own island, and in South Windsor they like their town the way it is. And that, my friends, is why we are stuck and will continue to be stuck where we are, and that is why our children are moving to Boston and New York and beyond.
Postscript: On a brighter note, Hartford HealthCare announced that, along with several other hospitals, it will open a training center in the Gold Building, which will bring 250 workers to downtown Hartford at least twice a week. That’s great news for Hartford. It’s also a reminder of how all of us in the suburban towns have two excellent hospitals available to us in Hartford, while the City obtains little or no property tax benefit for being home to the massive nonprofit hospital campuses. The people of South Windsor may not want another warehouse in their town, but they’re fine with letting Hartford carry the economic burden of the hospitals they depend on.