Rebuilding Connecticut’s Main Streets
The past eighteen months may prove to be their toughest in public office, but mayors from four Connecticut cities and towns say pandemic struggles ignited a new sense of community.
“I think we’ve learned we’re much better when we talk and we collaborate and aren’t in our own little spaces,” West Hartford mayor Shari Cantor said at CBIA’s Sept. 30 The Connecticut Economy conference in Hartford.
Mayor Elinor Carbone of Torrington, Mayor Laura Hoydick of Stratford, and Mayor Keith Hedrick of the city of Groton also participated in the hour-long discussion moderated by state Rep. Christine Goupil (D-Clinton).
“We’re small enough that we can actually call up people and say what are your challenges,” explained Hedrick as he discussed how his 10,000-person city reacted when the coronavirus first knocked in early 2020.
The Three Cs
Despite the varying sizes of their municipalities, the four leaders agreed on one thing: communication, collaboration, and community were among the largest factors in their success.
From fast tracking permits paving the way for outdoor dining, to morning calls about incoming funding opportunities, and driving residents to enjoy outdoor spaces, leaders depended on teamwork.
“The collaborative effort has changed the way we operate,” said Cantor.
Economic development teams were crucial. Multiple people wore economic development hats, especially in Groton and Torrington, where only one person had previously held the role.
“Everybody became part of the economic development team,” explained Carbone.
“We recognized that every decision that was being made by our local businesses needed answers from all of those various departments.”
Businesses needed help from residents too.
Hoydick says Stratford worked hard to make sure cash registers at local businesses continued to ring, encouraging people to stay local, which in turn encouraged them to shop locally.
Funding from the economic development team helped produce six industry specific videos for businesses like hair salons, pet groomers, and car repair shops.
“It was to remind the general public, ‘hey don’t forget these folks,’” said Hoydick.
“They can still use your business and in order to keep them in business, we need you to support them.”
In turn, businesses helped each other. For example, a construction company organized a golf tournament that generated $5,000 for Stratford’s restaurant recovery efforts.
The municipal leaders are continuing to navigate the labyrinth of requirements governing the spending of federal pandemic relief dollars.
Financial support from the federal government is arriving in large sums, but the mayors made it clear there are lingering questions about using those funds.
The final and largest federal COVID-19 relief bill, the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, came with a spending time frame and other constraints.
Municipalities must demonstrate the long-term impacts of the spending projects.
Hoydick said Stratford, which is home to 52,000 people, was allotted $26 million.
“I think we can focus on efficiencies of operation, what we learned from the pandemic, how the community participated remotely more than they did in person,” she explained.
Hoydick said the expansion of utilities and broadband has become critically important as well as improving water and sewer systems.
“Those big infrastructure projects that we can invest in will decrease debt going forward and hopefully improve our quality of life,” she said.
The city of Groton and the town of West Hartford are looking to make similar investments in sewer and water systems.
Groton will also put a large chunk of the money into parks and recreational programs.
“That impacts and affects everybody,” explained Hedrick, adding that beaches and parks became increasingly important amid the pandemic.
In Torrington’s case, the town plans to invest a portion of their funds in ventilation and HVAC systems in old buildings to make them healthier overall.
“Everything that we looked at as we were building the spending plan had to have that collective impact,” Carbone said.
“If we invest here and there are three other ways that that investment returns to us, that was our goal.”
West Hartford has its eyes on large infrastructure improvements for a portion of the funding in addition to the stormwater solutions.
“We’re focused on economic vitality,” said Cantor.
One infrastructure change they are considering is having retractable boulder-style devices on streets so they can periodically close down.
Investments in IT and cybersecurity are also being considered.
The municipal leaders made it clear they are still having to pivot and ask questions, but working as a team carried them through the challenges.
The Connecticut Economy was made possible through the generous support of Marcum LLP with additional support from Eversource Energy, Liberty Bank, People’s United Bank, Wells Fargo, and Windsor Federal Savings.
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