This piece by Lisa Prevost originally appeared in The New York Times November 15, 2016.
After Lelaneia Dubay developed an intolerance for the gluten and chemical additives in many alcoholic beverages, she went looking for a way to salvage her cocktail hour. Already skilled at making cranberry liqueur, which she bottled and gave as gifts at Christmas, she came up with a formula for a lavender liqueur, using sprigs from her garden. When she shared it with friends at a holiday party, their response was emphatic: Get this to market.
In the roughly 18 months since they introduced their Wild Moon brand in six flavors, including birch and rose, Ms. Dubay, 47, and her husband, Tom Dubay, 52, have managed to get the product into roughly 500 liquor stores, bars and restaurants in Connecticut and about 60 in Rhode Island. They now employ two full-time and 11 part-time workers.
“The mixologists love it,” Ms. Dubay said, “because it gives them something they don’t have.” The couple is already planning to expand beyond their 2,200-square-foot space as they eye other markets.
Hartford Flavor represents just the sort of grass-roots success story that Connecticut officials hope to cultivate through a new grant program aimed at creating innovation places, areas that will attract and nurture top talent and new businesses.
Under legislation adopted this year, the state will spend about $30 million over the next five years to help communities identify and invest in places ideally suited to support entrepreneurial activity that creates the kind of walkable urban settings that have proved so attractive to young workers. The program operates through CTNext, a state-backed support network for entrepreneurs.
The intent is also to stimulate more entrepreneurial activity around major colleges and universities and corporate research facilities.
“Connecticut has the ingredients that make for a good environment for entrepreneurs—a smart work force, great higher-ed institutions,” said State Senator John Fonfara, a Hartford Democrat and the legislation’s architect. “We just have never taken the ingredients, put them together and put them in the oven.”
The state’s economy has been plagued by tepid job growth, and took a further hit this year as General Electric left its headquarters in suburban Fairfield for the booming tech hub of Boston. Hartford is hobbled by budgetary woes severe enough that S&P Global Ratings recently lowered the credit rating on the city’s general obligation bonds to BBB from A-plus, citing “uncertainty regarding the city’s ability to enact deficit mitigation measures, coupled with the significant budget gaps the city projects for the next five years.”
The grant program is an effort to jump-start job growth by trying to replicate the conditions that are drawing young professionals in droves to places like Boston, Austin and Pittsburgh, Mr. Fonfara said. The state’s unemployment rate in September was 5.4%, and has been slightly above the national rate for several years. Initial planning grants were awarded to 12 of 17 applicants last month, primarily cities. Strategic plans identifying main investment areas and potential co-investors are due April 1.
Hartford received one of those grants in collaboration with the town of East Hartford, thanks to the efforts of a group of entrepreneurs, local officials and representatives from major institutions like Trinity College, the University of Hartford and Hartford Healthcare. Michelle Cote, who oversaw the effort, said the group worked together to identify about a half-dozen areas where innovation might flourish.
“There’s an incredible concentration of institutions that have the capacity to foster start-up activity and second-stage business growth activity,” said Ms. Cote, who is the managing director of the Connecticut Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the University of Connecticut’s School of Business. “It’s a matter of getting them better connected and working toward everyone’s shared benefit.”
Parkville is named as one potential innovation place. Once home to major manufacturers, the diverse neighborhood is attracting entrepreneurs and artists who can find affordable space in the sprawling factory buildings. (The Dubays, for example, pay $2,000 a month.) Among the factory area’s larger anchors are the Hartford Denim Company, a clothing maker; Real Art Ways, a nonprofit arts organization; and reSET, a nonprofit providing work spaces and other supports for entrepreneurs. The neighborhood is also a stop on CTfastrak, the state’s bus-only transit system.
“Parkville is kind of the place to be right now,” said Ben Braddock, who, with his wife, Joy, recently opened Hog River Brewing Co., a craft brewery and taproom located in a former tire factory. Their 3,700-square-foot raw industrial space houses a shiny, seven-barrel brewing system and long communal tables crafted by friends. Apartments filling the building’s top three floors provide a built-in clientele, but the taproom also attracts weekend crowds from outside the neighborhood.
Downtown Hartford was also identified as a potential innovation place, not least because the University of Connecticut is moving its West Hartford campus there next fall with some 2,300 students and 250 faculty members. The university’s Graduate Business Learning Center is already downtown, just a few blocks from the new campus location, which is also close to the Hartford Public Library and the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art. Apartment development is on the rise; downtown has gained at least 650 units over the last few years, most of which have been absorbed by younger people, said Jamie Brätt, the city’s director of planning and economic development.
One New York entrepreneur has already seized on downtown Hartford’s potential by developing Innovate Hartford, 27,000 square feet of shared work space in two floors of an office building at 20 Church Street. Shana Schlossberg, the founder of EZBZ, an online concierge service, said she believed her team would be able to recruit 100 small, high-tech companies from around the globe to fill the space before it opens next year. Improvements, at a cost of more than $3.5 million, will include classrooms, a “fun zone” relaxing area, conference rooms and a small cafe. Her goal is for at least half the businesses to be working on products, not just apps and services. Rents will start at $350 a month.
Ms. Schlossberg is particularly interested in robotics start-ups, and said there was no reason Hartford could not claim it as a specialty.
“Hartford is primed and ready for this kind of activity,” she said. “It just needs someone from outside to come in and push.”
Her brother Benjamin Schlossberg, a managing member at Shelbourne Global Solutions, a real estate investment firm in Brooklyn, agreed that Hartford was at a tipping point. His company bought 20 Church Street in 2013, and another Class A building at 100 Pearl Street a year later. They expect to close on a third shortly.
“Not enough has been done to cheerlead for Hartford,” Mr. Schlossberg said.
That could be about to change. Ms. Schlossberg said a group of downtown building owners were joining to fund a major media campaign to be developed by the advertising firm Cummins&Partners to rebrand Hartford “as a city with a lot to offer entrepreneurs.” Hartford’s main claim to fame, she said, should not be its location halfway between Boston and New York.
Learn more about Innovate Hartford at www.innovatehartford.com.