Innovation Destination: Hartford Website Curator Nan Price sat down with Stephen Cole, Hartford’s Director of Economic Development Division, Department of Development Services, for a candid discussion about what’s happening in Parkville and the economic development progress that’s taking place throughout Hartford.
COLE: We identified Parkville as one community in Hartford and we are focusing all of our resources on it.
PRICE: So you think this is a better strategy then when we spoke earlier about the SC2 initiatives, which provided Hartford with six different strategies?
COLE: SC2 was a different type of program. This is the better strategy in my opinion, because instead of bifurcating our limited resources X number of ways, one neighborhood is getting all of the focus, all of the attention and all of the resources that are necessary to achieve economic development over the next say three years.
SC2 did help get Hartford on the map. We had people from 55 countries logged onto our website. And if that was the first time someone from Bangladesh ever heard of Hartford, that person heard of it in an entrepreneurial capacity. That person heard of it in a way that we’re giving away $1 million to support entrepreneurship.
PRICE: And they saw that Hartford is working to make change.
COLE: And we’re working to make change. And these are the types of changes we are trying to make by focusing on these types of entrepreneurs. So, if you see that Hartford is fostering that type of entrepreneurial activity, why wouldn’t you come?
PRICE: I’m curious why now there’s one thing that’s the focus where with SC2 everything was spread out?
COLE: Great point. With SC2 we were trying to get as many entrepreneurs as possible to tell us about what’s important—noting also from the last time you and I spoke, there are different types of entrepreneurs. We know that now. We shook the tree we saw what kind of fruit fell, and we know it’s ripe. So we can create a strategy geared toward helping entrepreneurs achieve success based on their disparate interests.
Parkville is different because the neighborhood is competing with other neighborhoods that are also poor for these resources. So on one hand we got more, we got six plans out of SC2 because we were looking for as many strategies to implement as possible as projects.
PRICE: That makes sense. So now you’ve identified a Neighborhood Revitalization Strategy Area (NRSA), which is a special adaptation of the CDBG program that allows cities to relax some of the owners restrictions on the program. Again, why focus on just one?
COLE: Why we focus on one neighborhood for the NRSA is so that we can concentrate those resources that are limited on that one neighborhood—almost like a silver bullet—and then we can actually take those six SC2 strategies and apply them to that neighborhood. Although they are very different programs with different objectives, SC2 and the NRSA aren’t mutually exclusive. We can implement the SC2 strategies in Parkville and use NRSA funds to help us do it.
PRICE: And why Parkville?
COLE: Parkville has been the focus because it has a great deal of the entrepreneur activity we’ve already been looking for. So SC2 does complement Parkville, but they are in many ways different projects and different programs. However, they both do rely on federal resources to achieve our goals. I think that’s a very important point to underline, too.
The city of Hartford is a half billion dollar corporation. We can only raise about a third of our financial resources by ourselves, so quite frankly we’re in corporate welfare. Two thirds of our capacity is provided by the federal and state governments. As you can imagine, that makes it difficult to achieve any extracurricular projects. We’re not just talking about police and fire, we’re talking about how do you help businesses start?
PRICE: Is that what you mean by “extracurricular?”
COLE: Right. Simply stated, there have been times where the public service economy has had to be revamped. We need to make certain that what we’re providing in the public service economy responds to the needs expressed by our constituency.
In this instance, small business development is one of those extracurricular things that doesn’t necessarily respond to core services like education, fire and police. In Hartford, because of our fiscal and economic situation, it’s critical for our government to provide these services. However, we still can’t raise these resources ourselves, we have to go out and find them.
Many other cities, like Hartford, have only had these services in the public service portfolio for about 10 to 20 years. Municipal economic development, as an industry, is a relatively new service in many places, including Hartford. The Division cannot rely heavily on our corporate structure to provide us with resources we need to be successful. The Division must go out and find what is necessary from outside sources.
PRICE: And how do you find those resources?
COLE: A lot of what we are able to do comes from federal resources. Whether it’s an entitlement grant program like the CDBG or it’s a competitive grant program like SC2, which was administered by the Economic Development Administration (EDA), we go out and we compete for those funds. A great deal of what my division has been able to achieve the last three years was actually somewhat reliant on federal resources.
PRICE: Speaking of three years, you had mentioned the focus being on Parkville for about that length of time. What happens after the three years? Does the focus then switch to a different area of Hartford or Connecticut?
COLE: It could, yes.
So after three years, we could assess the data for Parkville, see what we’ve achieved and whether or not there’s still more to be achieved, and we could extend it say another two years. It just has to be justified to the HUD what we’re trying to achieve is either measurable or will be achieved through whatever course of action.
However, if in X amount of time we have achieved our goals in Parkville, we can absolutely identify another area of Hartford to be the next NRSA. That seems to me to be the best practice and strategy.
I don’t know where will it will be. We conducted an analysis early on to determine who would be our first NRSA. There is some documentation to support why Parkville was chosen first. Because so much time will have passed since we began the Parkville program, we may have to go back and study this again to see who would be a viable second NRSA.
PRICE: How specifically is Parkville enhancing economic growth in the Hartford area?
COLE: Parkville’s proximity to wealth is unparalleled. It’s a working-class neighborhood; however, it’s just over the border from West Hartford and it shares an adjacent border with Hartford’s wealthiest neighborhood, the West End. So you talk about access to markets, this is a neighborhood has that.
What we need to do is tap those markets and really empower folks—give them the technical skills they need. Maybe government involves itself in other ways to help bring down development costs for build outs for startups. The fact is, if all we have to do is give someone the ability provide for their own quality of life, they will have achieved what the neighborhood is seeking to achieve on their own organically. All the government will have done is just give them the tools they need to do it—not necessarily leading the conversation, not necessarily leading the development effort, but just giving these entrepreneurs and these small business owners and these residents whatever they need to create a startup.
PRICE: And how do you do that?
COLE: Presently we have contracts with folks like the University of Hartford, who do a lot of work out in Parkville. Using city funds that we give to them, the University of Hartford can create a program that’s essentially free for a small business.
So, if you’re the University of Hartford and I’m a small business owner, you will work with me to establish goals. And at the end of the set term, you will submit to the city of Hartford a report that says: These are the goals and this is what we did to achieve the goals. The goals are either met or not met. And if they’re not met, here’s why and here’s what we can do next. And then we pay you on a case-by-case basis. It’s very much in the University’s interest to make sure that they’re meeting with as many unique businesses as possible, because they get revenue from this; this is income.
We have a handful of other partners as well, including the Spanish American Merchants Association (SAMA), which is among my personal favorites. Its name is a little misleading because they will assist anybody, you don’t need to be of the Spanish American dissent and you need not be a merchant.
What I find compelling about SAMA’s story is that they are effectively a mini government in their own right. They created a business improvement district (BID) zone that basically goes from Main Street in Hartford to Park Terrace. This is a significant swath of serviceable land. SAMA does things like graffiti remediation and snow removal and provide façade improvement grants, small business loans; almost everything that we provide as a division of the City of Hartford’s government.
Parkville and SAMA’s partners have been able to address those issues on our behalf because of their unique skills and because they also are able to seek unique resources beyond just the city’s.
PRICE: Going back to the technical skills you mentioned, what specifically are you referring to? Creating a website and learning social media and things like that?
COLE: Could be. Also learning how to use financial software. Not a lot of small business owners know how to use financial software that might be suitable to their business. So SAMA and the University of Hartford and a handful of our other partners will meet with businesses to determine their needs, set goals and then make certain that the business is set up with the right assets or resources to be successful.
And then of course, because they’re helping us, they get paid for that. There really is a pipeline here whereby the city at the top recognizes a need that must be provided. We ourselves don’t have the technical skills to provide it, but we found the partners are going out and finding the people who need it. They’re getting those skills and they’re launching their businesses and staying successful—remaining viable at minimum in Hartford.
PRICE: It’s a nice cycle.
COLE: Without question. Once they start their businesses, these people have a quality of life that moves them from say a market with a subsidized existence to a market-grade existence. You’re no longer unemployed for example, you’re able to employ.
PRICE: With regard to employment opportunities in Connecticut, is the city utilizing any other programs?
COLE: We partner with the state of Connecticut on a handful of other programs to encourage people to hire. For example, Step Up is something that’s pretty aggressively used in Parkville.
Step Up is a program that allows for businesses to hire Hartford residents and the state will underwrite the cost of their salary for up to a year. The first six months of training are on site and the subsequent six months of training are employment. So this small business now has a free employee for a year. That’s pretty great, right?
PRICE: Absolutely. Let’s go back to Parkville. What other factors are contributing to the success of this community?
COLE: Parkville is an immigrant community, which goes back to the entrepreneurial discussion we were having earlier. What types of entrepreneurs do we have in our entrepreneurial community? One of the very strong communities we have in the entrepreneurial community is immigrant entrepreneurs.
You’re inherently taking a risk in bringing yourself to a new market as an immigrant. When you look at the statistics it’s really compelling. These entrepreneurs are 60% more likely to start a business and be successful, meaning operate longer than about five years.
So why Parkville? Going back to that too—where else do we have manufacturing history in the city of Hartford? We’ve demolished it all citywide. Parkville has its strength partly because it still has all of its old mill buildings.
PRICE: As far as growth, you mentioned the Parkville neighborhood is at capacity.
COLE: Neighborhoods that grow out as much as they possibly can, which is where Parkville is, must then focus on growing upward. If there’s nowhere for the neighborhood to physically expand its political boundaries, it has to grow upward.
PRICE: What do you mean by “upward?”
COLE: When you consider that there are no opportunities for residential, commercial or retail in Parkville, you now need to start looking at what you have to build with. There are vacant lots, which is what we’re working on now.
I spend the majority of my time trying to fix what the city did 50 years ago and not nearly enough time trying to look ahead at the next 50 years. Parkville bucks that trend in some ways because I get to fix the problems from 50 years ago in order to achieve that neighborhood’s next vision.
There’s no alternative for us quite frankly. It’s the only place we have left to go. So that’s what I mean by “growing upward”—you can’t go out anymore, you’ve got to grow up.
PRICE: How to you feel that reSET is contributing to Parkville’s success?
COLE: reSET is a powerhouse out there. It’s partly because they’re a business that helps businesses start growing. reSET is working on launching businesses that have the civic reinvestment component to them. Admirable.
In my opinion, that’s how we solve these problems. If SAMA can create a BID zone that performs services the government isn’t able to perform but still must to strengthen the economic viability of the neighborhood, then why can’t we ask our small businesses to help us solve some of the problems that exist their own neighborhood?
I want to work with reSET as closely as I can because it’s important make businesses aware of what issues are there so that we can get them thinking about how their business could help solve those issues.
PRICE: So reSET is helping to building the community.
COLE: Right. Consider the brand that Parkville has already. I’ve worked in communities where if you ask people where they’re from they won’t tell you the name of the city, they’ll tell you name of the neighborhood. Hartford is different. If you’re from Hartford, you say you’re from Hartford. But if you’re from Parkville you say you’re from Parkville. There’s a brand there.