Skepticism And Questions Among Hartford's Latinos Regarding The City's Newest Development Project


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Artists’ rendering of new Hartford baseball stadium and adjacent proposed development
Bill Sarno

With a Hispanic population of nearly 45 percent, a double-digit jobless rate and as the capital city of a state ranked 50th, or dead last, in the latest Gallup Job Creation Index, one might think that the city’s largest group of residents –  Latinos – would welcome without question the economic boost that city leaders expect from the $350 million dollar stadium and urban redevelopment project planned for the downtown north area.
However, although the developers says the project will provide employment, concerns remain among the city’s largest group of residents as to if and how, this multi-use complex  will indeed directly benefit Latinos and others now living in the city over the long term.
A major concern is whether the new $56 million stadium, which will be funded by the city, and the new neighborhood being privately developed, have been set up to respond to the needs of Hartford’s largely Latino and African-American population or has it been designed to attract higher income people and urban professionals from outside the city.
“You have to be deliberate and can’t just say maybe the project will benefit residents,” said Robert Cotto Jr., a member of the Hartford Board of Education and director of urban initiatives at Trinity College.
Cotto said he is optimistic that the project will offer new job opportunities for residents, and bring some excitement and energy to the city, but he also said, “The stadium, new entertainment features and apartments seem mostly for outsiders.”
Meanwhile, others worry that this project is drawing resources and attention from areas that are more relevant to residents.  Cotto said that from an education perspective, he is concerned that DoNo Hartford has taken away energy and resources from educational needs such as the Moylan Montessori Magnet School, which may be moving from its location in a predominantly Puerto Rican neighborhood to West Hartford because a suitable city site has not been found.
Hartford resident Millie Arceniega, who is  Director of the Hartford Parent Academy, says she too is worried  that  the stadium development has captured the attention of the city’s leaders at the detriment of the city’s other needs.  “I’m all for creating jobs in Hartford, but the impact it’s going to have on Latinos is probably minimal. Right now, we have numerous older schools that have PCB, one is already closed down, with no plans on testing the others.  You would think they would first concentrate on that to keep our children safe. ”
Arceniega also questions the project’s ambitious plans, citing the Front Street development, which although recently has begun attracting new businesses, sat empty for years and still has empty storefronts.  “They talk about retailers coming in, who are they? Where is this flow of income coming from to Hartford?   They need to have a plan of implementation with specifics, have retailers signed up.  We’ve already heard grand plans before. I’m skeptical, because that’s a lot of money to invest and I don’t see the long term value for my family and others.”
Another concern is whether  city residents  will even be able to afford to live in the hundreds of new apartments planned for the 19-acre site.  Fernando Marroquin, who is the executive assistant to Council member Joel Cruz, said, “I would love that below market-rate housing be part of the project.”
Marroquin suggested that some apartments be made available for people who do not qualify under the government income standards for “affordable housing,” but do not make enough money to afford the market-rate rents.
Overall, Marroquin sees the project as a good thing for Hartford. Although he says stadiums themselves generally do not pack much of an economic impact, he hopes the entire development will create jobs, retail and other services, including a supermarket, that people need.
He added that sports franchises can create a sense of pride in the city and that the concept of the development could contribute to a “one Hartford” perspective.
Supporting the project is Joyce Bolanos, who owns several properties in Hartford and is the owner of Viva Hartford Media and produces a monthly cable television program about the city, and views DoNo Hartford as a positive. “It takes land that is now essentially empty and creates something  that has a function,” she said. “Every city has a stadium,” she said, “why not Hartford, too?”
Looking at the housing plans however, she too would like to see a mix of rents available, noting that in New York City  different levels of affordability can be found in some buildings. Bolanos said a market-rate structure is more likely to. attract “urban professionals.”
Over the next five years, the city’s chosen developer, DoNo Hartford LLC, expects to employ more than 500 people in turning an expanse of mostly unsightly parking lots into a modern multi-use complex. The current plans call for building 800 market-rate apartments, entertainment venues, offices, a brewery, extensive retail space, a parking garage, a long-needed supermarket and a 6,000-seat stadium for the Rock Cats minor league baseball team, which is moving to the capital city next year.
The developer is aware that community leaders and local officials have expressed concerns about the lack of plans for affordable housing and is considering its options.
Initially, the developer planned to finance the development privately, with the exception of the stadium, for which the city created an authority to handle the funding side, and that the project would not be subsidized, said Yves-Georges A. Joseph II, a member of the DoNo Hartford partnership set up by Centerplan Development of Hartford and LeylandAlliance LLC, a real estate development firm based in Tuxedo Park, N.Y.
“This was to be an entirely market rate deal,” Joseph said, adding that to expand access to the new apartments to more people and to make the cost-revenue side work, different funding sources, such as government subsidies, are needed and are being explored. The amount of subsidy being sought is reportedly $20 million.
Regarding who will build the complex, the developer has said that many of the construction jobs will go to Latinos and other members of ‘minority’  groups, but there is not a precise figure. Although Joseph refers to Latino and African American participation in the project as minority involvement, in Hartford these two groups make up the majority of residents and comprise a large part of an unemployment rate, 11 percent, which is about 18 percent higher than any other Connecticut city or town.
Joseph, who is of Haitian descent, says the Latino involvement in the context of minority participation is a priority and “paramount focus.”
“We take that (involvement) very seriously,” said Joseph, who joined Centerplan in 2010 and is vice president of development. Centerplan’s founder and chief executive is former state representative Robert Landino.
According to Joseph, Centerplan, whose Middletown-based construction division will erect the complex, expects that as much as 25 percent of the work will go to Latinos and African American residents and that 50 percent of the workforce could be Hartford residents.
DoNo Hartford’s contract with the city stipulates that at least 30 percent of the construction work be performed by Hartford residents. The redevelopment agreement also calls for 15 percent involvement by women and minorities.
There are various checks and balances in place to ensure the minority and resident employment requirements are met, Joseph said. This includes a monthly report on hiring.
Joseph, who serves as the spokesperson for the developer, claims many of Centerplan’s current 300 employees, including those involved in construction trades, are Latinos, although no exact figures or positions they hold were provided.
The developer’s seven-person management team does have one Latino on it,  Ryan Linares, who is the brother and campaign manager for Art Linares, the first Latino Republican elected to the state Senate. Ryan Linares, rose in the company from serving as an intern in 2010 to his current position as retail development associate, Joseph said.
As an example of Centerplan’s existing hiring practices, Joseph pointed to the company’s Center Street and Route 34 projects in New Haven. “We have many Latinos on the ground,” he said, adding that 20 percent of the workers at the New Haven job site are from minority groups, with the “vast majority” being Latinos.
Looking beyond the hundreds of jobs the developer plans to create during the construction phase, the Do No Hartford complex  could result in sustained additional employment after construction in excess of 1,000 jobs according to a study released last September by the Connecticut Center for Economic Analysis at the University of Connecticut in Storrs.
While how many of these ongoing jobs will go to Latinos is uncertain, UConn estimates that hundreds will be held by residents of Hartford, where nearly half of the population is Latino.
The building of the stadium is under a project labor agreement which covers union participation. Staffing for the stadium once it is in operation will be under the Rock Cats control, Joseph said. The UConn study said that many of these jobs will be at lower pay rates than the marketplace’s average, but that in many cases this work will be to supplement family incomes.
The Hartford project has come together relatively quickly. In July, the Rock Cats announced they were moving from New Britain to a new stadium that would be build in downtown Hartford.
Seeking to redevelop part of the city that had been cut off from downtown since the construction of Interstate 84 about 50 year ago, the city requested development proposals with the Centerplan group responding.
This project is interesting because the city provided the impetus, Joseph said. “We usually initiate these projects.”
Since the beginning of the development process, Do No Hartford representatives have been getting feedback from politicians and a lot of community groups. “Overwhelmingly, people have been excited by the mixed-use approach,” Joseph said.
Centerplan expects to address one of the local needs through the inclusion of a supermarket. The downtown north area has been described as a “food desert,” Joseph said, with people going outside Hartford to buy groceries.
“From the beginning, ShopRite has been there with us,” Joseph said, adding that the developer is involved in continuing discussions with that company and other grocers.