The City of Hartford, Connecticut’s Capital City, was once the global home of innovation and creativity. From firearms and the Colt Revolver, to Mark Twain and Harriett Beecher Stowe, to the first public park (Bushnell Park opened the same year as Central Park in New York City) and museum (Wadsworth Antheneum). Today, however, we are a small city that is too often forced to confront a frustrating duality.
We are proud and grateful that global companies like Aetna, The Hartford, Travelers and United Technologies Corporation continue to make Hartford their corporate home. At the same time, Hartford has the highest unemployment rate in Connecticut (hovering around 14.5 percent, but down from a high of 17 percent when I took office in June 2010) and one of the lowest median incomes in the country. Conversely, Brookings Institutionrecently named us the most productive cities in the world and Parade Magazine named us the second hardest working city in the country. Our graduation rate, while dramatically improved since we launched a comprehensive education reform effort five years ago, is still no more than 50 percent, yet Richard Florida named us the 17th most creative city in America.
With these weighty issues at the forefront of my public policy agenda, and considering that we are jam-packed into a small geographic area, there is very little room for error whenever we launch a dynamic initiative that intends to dramatically shift the way Hartford’s residents think about government and the services we provide. Said another way, they are skeptical — and, as can undoubtedly be said in every city and small town throughout the country, who can blame them?
When I took office, following a scandal that further depressed Hartford and resulted in the arrest and resignation of the former Mayor, I immediately began the process of analyzing how we could tackle some of our most dramatic problems, particularly in the areas of education, income and job development, through better coordination and collaboration. As a small city of only 18 square miles and almost 2,000 acres of historic park land, there are over 250 churches and thousands of non-profit social service providers. These institutions and service providers, while necessary and important, compete for dollars, patients or clients and publicity. Out of this concentration of services and a dwindling ability to provide financial support grew Opportunities Hartford, an ambitious initiative designed to identify the greatest short, medium and long-term opportunities that exist in education, job readiness/creation/career advancement and family sustaining income, expand and enhance those opportunities, and funnel public and private sector funds to identified and targeted areas and programs.
The program has been in existence for about a year and is being led by a work group of eight and a steering committee of 40 from various sectors across Hartford. Fundamentally, it coincides nicely with my Administration’s efforts to make our Downtown more welcoming, walkable and vibrant through the iQuilt Plan and the recently received federal Department of Transportation TIGER IV award. This almost $20 million dollar project — the Intermodal Triangle Project — will create over 275 job-years of work and generate almost $2 million dollars of new economic activity. Coupled with the work we are doing with our Congressional Delegation to have the Colt Gateway designated as a national park, which could generate an additional 1,000 jobs and infuse over $150 million dollars in sales back into the local economy, we are equally primed to change the physical landscape in Hartford in meaningful, lasting and dramatic ways.
While these important infrastructure projects move forward, we are simultaneously preparing for the final release of the Opportunities work plan, one that will include concrete immediate, medium and long-term action steps to continue increasing educational attainment, bridging the gap between self-sufficiency and the median income and increasing the supply of jobs that pay a fair wage and provide benefits. While this project is still somewhat in its infancy, it promises to completely revolutionize how non-profit and social service providers look at government as a funding source and how they assess which services to deliver and how to deliver them.
While it is odd to many to hear a Democrat talk about compression, consolidation and collaboration in ways that reduce size and increase efficiency — thus generating cost-savings — mayors do not have the luxury of accepting the status quo, we are often forced (by duty and psychological make-up) to take positions that often run opposite of both conventional wisdom and what’s generally politically popular.
Opportunities Hartford is primed to do just that, and Hartford, which undoubtedly will be all the better for it and might once again find itself an iconoclast; leading the way in innovation and creativity.