Investing in Hartford’s Future, Part 1: Technology and Education By Jamil Rashad Ragland

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Dunkin’ Donuts Park is here. After the delays, litigation and cost overruns, the Hartford Yard Goats played their first home game ever on April 13th to a standing room only crowd. The rest of the $350 million development added after the fact to the stadium announcement is nowhere to found, however. What are the prospects of the promised development around the stadium coming to fruition? The city is still mired in litigation with the original developers of the stadium, Centerplan Construction Co., which despite being removed from the stadium itself, is still tasked with developing the plots around Dunkin Donuts Park. Resolving those legal issues could take years. If development comes to Downtown North, it will be years before there are any shovels in the ground, much less anything resembling completion.

In the meantime, Hartford will continue to exist as a financially and economically distressed city, now with almost $3 million in debt to pay for the stadium this year. The theory that large, publicly-funded sports stadiums can drive economic development is straight out of the playbook from the 1990’s, with failures across the nation to attest to its ineffectiveness. This moment of fiscal crisis gives us the opportunity to look forward, and conceptualize development that will bring Hartford into the future.

Like many cities, Hartford was devastated by deindustrialization and suburbanization. Hartford is still struggling with the consequences even as the next major shift is practically upon us. Much has been written about the rise of automation, and how it threatens low-skill workers such as restaurant employees and drivers. Less discussed is the impact it will have on today’s white collar, professional jobs. Careers in insurance and finance, the current lifeblood of Hartford’s employment, are being disrupted by advances in automation. The technology to replace white-collar workers already exists, and has already been implemented in one Japanese insurance company. These systems will become more common much sooner than we think, and Hartford could be looking at major changes to one of its most important industries. City leaders may be focused on stemming the flow of red ink now, but must also keep an eye to the challenges which are approaching rapidly.

Hartford must position itself to create educational and occupational opportunities that will pay dividends for the city and its residents in the years ahead. Such an approach will require leadership and vision at all levels- residents, government officials, nonprofit organizations and corporations. Working together, we can focus on developing the city with an eye towards three major areas: technology and education, the arts, and grass-roots cooperatives. In this column, I want to focus on the possibilities of technology and education in the city.

When General Electric announced that it was leaving Connecticut for Boston last year, much of the attention was focused on the recent tax hikes Governor Dannell Malloy imposed. Aaron M. Renn of City Journal explored some of the other factors which drove GE north in a blog he wrote for City Journal. Renn writes,

Boston has become a dominant location for biotech, with Cambridge’s Kendall Square alone adding over 10 million square feet of biotech space since 2009. It’s not surprising that the increasingly tech-driven GE is moving to Boston. Not only is Boston the premier urban center in New England; it has also long been America’s traditional second city of technology.

Renn points out the specific advantages that Boston has over Fairfield, but the larger point of his article is that cities, particularly large cities, are experiencing a resurgence in today’s technology-driven economy. The demographic trends of younger, more educated workers and the benefits of density and proximity have converged to offer opportunities to revitalize downtowns across the country. Those cities which are well-positioned to take advantage of these changes (cities like Boston, New York and Chicago as Renn mentions) are seeing dividends, but it’s not too late for smaller cities like Hartford to join in.

With the University of Connecticut moving its main satellite campus from West Hartford to downtown Hartford this year, Hartford will have ten colleges and universities within ten miles of downtown, including four year schools such as Trinity College, St. Joseph College, Central Connecticut State University and the University of Hartford. The future of Hartford lies in providing quality jobs for those students who often leave the area after graduation, and in providing the means for Hartford residents to join the educational pipeline. Part time jobs at the stadium an careers in insurance may not be the path to prosperity for these students.

What if Hartford’s next big investment was in something revolutionary for the city, like a biotechnology lab? If that sounds fantastic, take a step back and remember how fantastic the idea of a minor league baseball stadium sounded three years ago. After the initial backlash to a standalone stadium, former Mayor Pedro Segarra’s administration reconfigured the stadium as part of a $350 million project which would include a grocery store, a brewery, retail and housing. Two years after that development was supposed to break ground, we can see how much of a pie in the sky concept it really was. For $150 million, less than half of that total, Downtown North could have a facility like GE’s new research lab in Rio de Janerio, Brazil. Biomedical technology is a rapidly growing field, and as future-proof as an industry realistically can be. Building such a facility will not be enough. City leaders must ensure that residents of the city have an opportunity to work in these hi-tech fields and not rely solely on the low-wage seasonal work provided by the stadium. The children and young adults of Hartford need to be educated to work in math and science fields, and then they will need work in those fields.

A first step would be to negotiate automatic admissions into the area’s four year colleges and universities for high achieving Hartford students. There are currently no agreements between the Hartford Public Schools and the four year colleges in the area (UConn, St. Joseph, University of Hartford, Trinity) that allows for automatic acceptance based on academic performance. This is not a radical idea, or even a new one; the University of Texas has had a state-wide program similar to this idea for twenty years. The cost of attending these schools, particularly the private schools, would certainly pose a burden for some students. That is a problem to discuss another day though. For now, we can make choices to at least make the college acceptance process easier for local students.

Finally, once the students graduate, they will need good jobs to keep them from taking their degrees south as so many others have. Here, our imaginary biotech lab could play a role. An agreement between our lab and the local schools for employment upon graduation (with considerations such as background checks and other necessary pre-employment screening, of course) would populate our lab while keeping professional talent in Hartford. The key to this idea is supporting Hartford residents from beginning to end, starting with high school, their access to college, and providing them with jobs afterwards.

GE may have been escaping Connecticut’s taxes. It may have been looking for an urban, educated workforce that values city living. It may have acted for both reasons. Hartford can’t do anything about the former, but it can take steps to help position itself for the latter when new opportunities arise. There are a thousand details that would need to be worked out for our imaginary biotech lab in Downtown North to ever be realized. This is the kind of thinking that needs to happen in our city though if we’re ever going to turn the corner. Not baseball, not more money poured into the Civic Center. We need something that looks towards the future of urban development, not its past. In my next column, I’ll discuss another realm of development that is helping cities around the country bounce back: the arts.

*Correction 04/21/17- I was informed by an employee at Capital Community College that there is a system for community college graduates to transfer into state-run four year schools. I have removed the erroneous paragraph.