For two days last week, real estate scouts who help companies find sites for their operations visited Greater Hartford to see what the region has to offer.
They left with an impression of an area taking wing - home to more than just the insurance industry, pleasantly uncongested, with an ample supply of educated workers, and, oh yeah, with a Cabela's superstore on the way.
"There's a lot more here than I thought there was. I didn't realize how much the area has to offer," said Joseph Callanan, president of Dallas-based Trammell Crow's Northeast region.(Kalra)
Apparently, there are at least a few important people out there who seem bullish on Greater Hartford, which is a welcome, if somewhat jarring, change. We're not used to thinking of ourselves as an up-and-coming region, despite the peppy pro-Hartford and pro-Connecticut propaganda the government puts out.
Here's what these real-estate "scouts" liked about the city and the region:
"You know, you think of the Northeast and you think of how congested it is. You don't think of the natural beauty and the compactness. These towns are all drivable."
"The area now seems to have a genuine critical mass in the high-tech fields," Donovan said. "Five or six years ago, that wasn't here. Hartford's becoming more legitimate. I and my clients can seriously consider it now."
On Thursday - a clear, cloudless morning - the consultants were treated to an hourlong helicopter ride over verdant hills, crystal lakes and the city skyline... The morning ride was followed by an afternoon at the Buick Championship watching some of the nation's top golfers competing in Cromwell.
He was surprised when told that the Connecticut workforce was slightly, but not "significantly," more unionized than workforces in other areas of the country (16 percent compared with 13 percent), and that central Connecticut had "excellent" power transmission.
"You should put that on your website," he said. (Kalra)
So: Great roads (have they, um, actually been here?), low cost of living (somewhat true: ask your friends in Boston what they paid for their three-room shack on 0.10 acres of land--then ask your friends in Kentucky the same thing), not too many union members, good power transmission, scenery and second-tier golf tournaments. Oh, and a Cabela's, which sounds like the kind of place I'll never set foot inside, although I'm sure it's very cool.
What didn't they like?
Dennis J. Donovan, who heads site selecting firm Wadley Donovan Gutshaw Consulting in New Jersey, said efforts to raise the Hartford area's profile nationally are, for the most part, beginning to gain momentum.
"There's one exception: Not funding a major national marketing campaign," he said.
Donovan, one of the site selectors who visited in 2002, said at least $2 million a year should be spent in marketing the area. The alliance's budget now sets aside about $50,000 a year for such efforts.
Enthusiasm for Hartford was tempered among the consultants by a perception that Connecticut is stingy in offering tax breaks to win corporate business. Although they acknowledged that incentives are the least important factor in landing a deal - and irrelevant without the business basics - subsidies can often serve as the tie-breaker between competing locations.
With a total package of about $2,000 per job, Connecticut lags behind competitors such as New York, which often shells out between $5,000 and $10,000 in tax incentives per job created, Donovan said.
"Connecticut is noncompetitive," Donovan said, shaking his head. "It's a shame, because you need the incentive to close a deal. Selling a community or a state is like selling any other product. And every salesman needs a closer. That's not corporate welfare, that's capitalism." (Kalra)
So we need to spend $2 million marketing Hartford, then give businesses who move here tax breaks on the order of $5,000 to $10,000 per job created? Got it. Fortunately, we have a ton of money just sitting around, and no aging infrastructure to spend it on.
Connecticut, thought, is much more than just uncluttered roads, low union membership, golf, trendy chain stores and stingy governments. They're right on a number of important points: the cost of living isn't too high, everything's within driving distance and the land, from the hills to the river to the sea, is really quite beautiful. They don't mention that history is everywhere you turn, that the weather does have its moments, and that people here are unpretentious, adaptable, and down-to-earth in a very practical way. That's why I stay.
Why do you?
Kalra, Ritu and Kenneth R. Gosselin. "In Greater Hartford, A Defining Moment." Hartford Courant 28 August, 2005.