Let's move on and look at some real, from-the-groun
d-up opportunities sprouting in Hartford that will mean far more than a pro sports team.
Now that we've woken from another bad NHL dream, can we finally nail that coffin shut? Better yet, let's change the conversation: Downtown Hartford doesn't have to be the center of the region, but it can be a lively, livable neighborhood that makes this entire area a better place to live.
The NHL isn't coming back. But I'll bet there will still be some kind of minor league team in Hartford for years to come, even without Howard Baldwin, whose noble bid to bring back major league hockey appears to be in shambles.
Let's move on and look at some real, from-the-ground-up opportunities sprouting in Hartford that will mean far more than a pro sports team. Ironically, during those glory days when the old Whalers were here during the 1980s and '90s, few people actually lived in downtown Hartford. That's quickly changing, and hockey has little to do with it.
Hundreds of people have moved into downtown Hartford in recent years, bringing the downtown residential population to as many as 1,800 people, with few housing vacancies. This critical mass of a few thousand people who have chosen to live in the city's downtown is the start of a long-term economic revival. It may not be enough yet to support a decent food market, but there's reason for hope beyond the two yoga studios that have opened recently — developers are vying for $60 million in new state housing funds likely to be awarded later this year.
"These are people who are going to be eating and shopping and living here every day,'' said David Panagore, the city's chief operating officer. "You need to have about 2,500 to 3,000 people, that's when you have a tipping point. The population becomes self-sustaining."
Meanwhile, a recently awarded $10 million federal grant, combined with $10 million in city money, will go toward remaking downtown streets and sidewalks, from Union Station to Main Street and along Bushnell Park. The work, which is part of the iQuilt plan for downtown, will also include re-aligning Gold Street so that the park can extend up to Main Street, and redesigning the streets that run along the north side of the park. Bike lanes and trees are part of this plan, and so is a reworking of downtown bus routes.
There's still plenty to be depressed about. It took years just to install bicycle racks around downtown. The overall commercial office vacancy rate is about 30 percent. Over on Front Street, a much-discussed movie theater is moving at a glacial pace, and there's no final word yet about a proposed live music hall.
"The unfortunate thing over the last couple of years has been the NHL argument. Everything has been focused on all these things we need to do to get the NHL back,'' said Oz Griebel, who leads the MetroHartford Alliance, a business group. "That's the wrong discussion."
New, and hopefully more creative, management and marketing of the Connecticut Convention Center, Rentschler Field and the XL Center is on the horizon in the form of the recently enacted Capital Region Development Authority. This entity, part of Gov. Malloy's urban agenda that is driving more housing and education money to the cities, aims to better coordinate economic development in Hartford, from arts to housing to sports venues.
Today, the people behind the iQuilt project — arts organizations, business groups and activists who aim to connect Hartford's downtown arts attractions through better streets, walkways and improved parks — will announce Envisionfest, a weekend-long block party this Sept. 27 and 28 to showcase the city's arts attractions. On Friday, there will be a formal announcement of the University of Connecticut's plan to step up its hockey program and play at the XL Center starting in 2014.
Will K. Wilkins, director of Hartford's nationally acclaimed Real Art Ways for the past two decades, told me he sees welcome signs of folks just deciding to do something on their own instead of waiting for something bigger to happen.
"The secret to any kind of revival is to look locally. Shore up and buttress the resources that you have,'' said Wilkins, whose group has, for 10 years running, put on its popular monthly "creative cocktail party" in the off-the-beaten-path Parkville neighborhood.
Wilkins had some valuable advice for city leaders who can't let go of big projects, sports teams, or this idea that Hartford must be the big rising star of New England.
"Can we talk about something else?"