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New Regional Development Agency: Broader Vision, Power Base

May 14, 2012

By KENNETH R. GOSSELIN, kgosselin@courant.comThe Hartford Courant 10:22 a.m. EDT, May 15, 2012

A new regional economic development authority created in the just-ended legislative session gives a voice to Hartford and East Hartford officials on its board, a perspective that was lacking in the organization that it will replace.

Even though officials in Hartford met monthly with the Capital City Economic Development Authority, created in 1998 to oversee six major Hartford redevelopment projects, but the city still didn't have much of a say in projects that were reshaping the downtown, adding thousands of apartments and well over 100,000 square feet of storefront space. "Is the city happy to have a stronger role and more of a presence?" David B. Panagore, the city's chief operating officer, said. "Yes. The city didn't have a lot of control or influence."

The newly-created Capital Region Development Authority, with a broader charge, will have 13 members on its board including Hartford Mayor Pedro E. Segarra and two appointees: a city resident and and city employee who is not an elected official. In addition, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who proposed the new authority, gets to appoint four members; the legislature's speaker and minority leader of the House will appoint a board member; and the president pro tempore and minority leader of the Senate will appoint a member.

The board will be rounded out by East Hartford Mayor Marcia Leclerc, the secretary of the Office of Policy and Management and the commissioners of transportation and economic and community development. Malloy has not yet signed the legislation creating the authority, a spokesman for the governor said Monday. The new authority will be charged with managing and building on the projects whose construction was overseen by the Capital City Economic Development Authority, or CCEDA. It will also coordinate operations at the Connecticut Convention Center in Hartford, Rentschler Field in East Hartford and the XL Center — the former Civic Center — in downtown Hartford.

But unlike CCEDA, the new authority will cast a much larger net, bringing in East Hartford and other nearby towns in the Hartford area to work together on the projects that will ultimately strengthen the central city. Two priorities are expected to be increasing the stock of apartments in downtown Hartford and working to bring down the office vacancy, perhaps with the state purchasing vacant office buildings and moving state workers downtown. "We're putting a little bit of special emphasis on Hartford because it is the capital city," said Catherine Smith, the state commissioner of economic and community development. "But we want surrounding towns to be part of the strategy." Marie O'Brien, president of the Connecticut Development Authority, said the new authority marks an important evolution in the region's economic development efforts.

CCEDA "has done its work and now is being transformed into an authority similar to what other regions in the country have," O'Brien said. "It takes in a more regional approach."

The hope is that the approach will attract more visitors who will view the area as a region — for instance, attending a football game or other event at Rentschler Field and perhaps staying at a hotel in another town, O'Brien says — and help keep key demographic groups such as young professionals and empty-nesters from moving away. Smith said she expects the board to be in place by the end of June, but she declined to comment on possible appointees. William McCue, founder of McCue Mortgage Co., is chairman of CCEDA and it is unclear whether he or others on the CCEDA board will join the new authority.

Smith declined to comment on what might happen with the current employees of CCEDA, though she said the new authority is likely to need many of those workers "but that is a decision the board is going to have to make." James Abromaitis has been executive director of CCEDA since 2007 when he was ousted as commissioner of economic and community development. In response to an e-mail asking if he wanted to remain executive director, Abromaitis wrote: "All of us at the authority are excited to be involved in the continued momentum in Hartford and now the region."

Most of those interviewed Monday said CCEDA had accomplished many of its goals, including the construction of the convention center, the development of the Hartford 21 complex, the redevelopment of the old Sage-Allen department store building and the moving of a community college into the old G. Fox & Co. building.

Clearly, retail leasing has lagged, particularly at Front Street and at Hartford 21, but O'Brien and others said that was partly because of the economy.

"The fact that you have one piece that didn't get implemented and that's as much a factor of the economy as anything, that's not bad," said Oz Griebel, president and chief executive of the MetroHartford Alliance. "Is it perfect? Nothing of that magnitude is going to be be perfect, but they did react to the need that was there."

Griebel said he hoped the new authority would include representatives of high-profile businesses in the region. "I'm certainly urging that that the private sector be on the board and come from major employers," Griebel said. "How you use the assets is not just a question for visitors but major employers, how it helping retain and recruit employees and if they grow and expand here."