West Hartford Mayor Shari Cantor presented her annual State of the Town address Thursday via a Zoom webinar hosted by the Chamber of Commerce, and said looking at 2020 through foresight has prepared the town well to face the future.
By Ronni Newton
As West Hartford Mayor Shari Cantor addressed an audience through Zoom Thursday – the virtual platform replacing what has typically been a sold-out luncheon hosted by the Chamber of Commerce at the Delamar Hotel – several things were clear: COVID-19 was the story of 2020, but the many challenges the pandemic brought have made the town better prepared to face the future in creative and unique ways.
During her 2020 address, Cantor called West Hartford “a star among Connecticut towns,” and while COVID-19 has permeated virtually everything that has taken place over the past 11 months, Cantor’s call for the town to build on its successes in creative ways has proven to be the reason West Hartford has continued to shine, and why she is so optimistic for the future.
“These past 11 months have been disorienting, disruptive and challenging,” Cantor said Thursday. “We don’t know what is ahead but we do know one thing for sure – that we are different. We are already reimagining, rethinking, reckoning, and we really hope soon to be reuniting and remembering these challenges we all faced together – although each of us in a unique way.”
The ability to adapt and react to what has not only been a health and economic crisis – but also a social crisis that has brought new focus to systemic and institutionalized racism and inequalities – has been West Hartford’s strength.
“The businesses that have been most successful have been nimble and creative. Now, as we think about how we incorporate some of the new and evolving strategies and technologies that have helped get us through this year, we need strategic foresight,” Cantor said.
“Foresight that is not about predicting the future – as we have learned that is not possible. But it is preparing for the future.”
While it may seem like Groundhog Day, Cantor said Thursday, “we know we see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
A look back
Before focusing on that light, however, Cantor shared some of the more somber statistics, – worldwide, nationally, and locally.
By the end of 2020, COVID-19 had claimed the life of 188 West Hartford residents, many of them the most vulnerable residents living in nursing homes. As of Wednesday, the state reported 220 West Hartford fatalities.
It was late last February when the West Hartford-Bloomfield Health District – led by Aimee Krauss, who at the time was still an interim director – began monitoring the novel coronavirus, COVID-19.
“Events began to unfold very rapidly,” Cantor said.
She signed a declaration of a state of emergency on March 15, and schools were closed for what was originally scheduled as two weeks. In-person dining – a core component of West Hartford’s economy – along with “non-essential” retail, fitness businesses, entertainment venues, and more, were shut down statewide on March 16.
Town Hall went into virtual mode. On March 19, Cantor signed the first executive order prohibiting gatherings of 10 or more. Playgrounds were closed.
On March 20, the first West Hartford COVID-19 case was confirmed.
There were shortages of basic needs. “I now really do store a lot of toilet paper,” Cantor said, holding up a large package of Charmin on the screen.
As she reviewed some of the other highlights of the year, Cantor infused a game into her virtual presentation: spot the Bernie. The now-iconic meme of Sen. Bernie Sanders in his mittens on his folding chair (see above) appeared in more than a dozen slides, and the attendee at the virtual presentation who first responded with the correct number received a $25 gift card to their favorite restaurant.
Stepping up and finding new ways to interact
The West Hartford community immediately jumped into action, donating PPE when asked to assist with a scarcity among first responders.
“Then we found new ways to stay in touch,” Cantor said, noting family walks and game nights, hearts in windows, chalk drawings.
“There were some really good memories, but we all know that they were encased in anxiety,” she said.
Employees started working from home, and that’s still the norm for many nearly a year later. Town Hall remains at 50% capacity an on an appointment-only basis.
We did some new things, she said. “There was so much richness in our community during these challenging months.”
Public health and awareness
Krauss was officially named health director on April 22, only the second director to lead the West Hartford-Bloomfield Health District and the first woman to do so.
“We are so grateful for the service she provides,” said Cantor. The role of the Health District Health District has been critical, and Krauss has guided West Hartford with public information.
“We knew the three W’s,” Cantor said. “Wear a mask; Wash your hands for 20 seconds; Watch your social distancing … we just kept repeating it, repeating it, and repeating it.”
There was cross-department collaboration to share those messages as well, to continue to educate the community and keep people safe.
“We did a lot of pivoting, as you all know,” said Cantor.
Virtual meetings and public hearings, the establishment of recovery teams to flatten out the Town Council’s committee structure and allow for greater public engagement, and the enormous task undertaken by West Hartford Community Interactive, under the leadership of Jennifer Evans, made it possible for the community to remain involved and aware, Cantor said.
“Our libraries are like the kitchen of our home,” said Cantor, and they served as an information center. The libraries began offering additional services over the summer, and to date have provided 23,000 curbside pick-ups, Cantor said. The service has been so successful it will likely continue even after the pandemic ends.
Library staff are also now running the town’s COVID vaccination information line, which launched Monday.
Messaging found new and additional channels – banners on the town green as well as Everbridge calls (22 COVID-related and six related to Tropical Storm Isaias).
Businesses received support from the town through forums, and collaborated among themselves, as well as with the town and Chamber of Commerce, on a variety of initiatives.
The “Eat Local. Win Local” campaign in late spring, which encouraged people to support restaurants through take-out, had 251 participants and raised more than $17,000 in just over a month, said Cantor.
The town’s building inspection office literally opened a “window” on the ground level of Town Hall, to safely provide permit services. It’s open Monday through Friday, from 8 a.m.-3 p.m.
The town did not stop holding special events but they became virtual, or were reinvented to take place safely in-person. Some examples were the “Stroll Your Own Way” holiday celebration, virtual Memorial Day and Martin Luther King Day presentations, a virtual high school art show, slow roll bicycle events, drive-through trick-or-treating at Sedgwick Middle School, and the “Run Apart-Give Together” virtual “fund run” held in lieu of the Celebrate! West Hartford road race.
West Hartford residents remained engaged in the election process, too, and the town had the second-highest turnout in the state at 86.37%. Greenwich had 86.39%, Cantor said. “If nine more people had voted we would have been the highest,” she added.
Absentee ballot voting was 51% of the total, second only to Stamford.
The absentee ballot voting creating lasting legacy. “The Election Drop Boxes worked so well, that the Town Clerk’s Office is installing a drop box in front of Town Hall so residents can drop off documents instead of relying on the U.S. mail or scheduling an in-person appointment,” Cantor said. It can be used for documents related to land recordings, vital record requests, and other license requests.
Zoom – the platform Cantor used for Thursday’s address – has brought new ways for interacting. It’s been used by Leisure Services for interviewing, for engaging in creative recreation, and more, Cantor said. “We will continue to use these virtual platforms to keep participants engaged and active”
Some recreation hasn’t been virtual – including family yoga and park-to-park bike rides. Rounds of golf at the town courses hit an all-time high.
On-street dining was one of the most visible examples of a creative solution by the town and restaurants, “transforming our streets into really ‘gardens of eating,'” Cantor said.
West Hartford’s schools are the town’s gem, and they rose to the challenge as well.
“On March 16 our schools closed. Not a day went by without our children being able to get meals,” Cantor said, with 320 grab and go lunches distributed the first day, then expanding to breakfast, with the help of 200 volunteers. From September through January, 220,660 meals have been distributed.
The first week there were 1,300 laptops distributed, and within five days remote learning was up and running.
Currently, 16% of students are enrolled in remote learning, and the remote elementary school, created in just six weeks, is the town’s largest school.
The remainder of students are either fully in-person (elementary) or hybrid (secondary). “West Hartford is the largest district in the state keeping kids in school,” Cantor said.
Music programs have found unique ways to continue, and last spring both Conard and Hall had drive-in graduations.
There were also parades for graduates, which were a bit hit with students as well as the community. “I think this would be a great way to continue to celebrate our graduates and send them on to the next phase of their lives,” Cantor said.
Cantor also praised the partnerships between town departments as well as with businesses and other agencies – for PPE distribution on a regional and local basis, for testing of first responders at Jackson Labs, for COVID testing which is still available weekly at the Elmwood Community Center free of charge, and American Red Cross blood drives at Town Hall.
The West Hartford Arts and Culture Commission was created and got to work amid the pandemic. There are art installations on bus shelters, virtual plays continue, and many more exciting plans in the works, Cantor said.
Although apart, residents acted in unity and supported each other more than ever over the past year, with food donations and distributions at double the level of the past year.
“We got our first round of vaccines up and running with one-day notice,” Cantor said, with the initial doses going to first responders.
Beginning Thursday, vaccination opened to individuals ages 65 and up, and the town hosts a weekly clinic at Town Hall each Thursday.
A vaccine information line went live this week, as did a mobile vaccination program for homebound residents – a collaboration between the fire department and Health District. “We are the first community to do this,” Cantor said.
The town enacted tax relief programs, and kept businesses informed about available relief funds.
“2020 was a year of raising awarenesses and consciousness for sure,” Cantor said.
The town held its first recognition of Juneteenth, a day that will now be celebrated as a holiday every year. “This is America’s second independence day,” Cantor said.
There were rallies, creation of the pride crosswalk in Blue Back Square, and Goodman Green has been renamed Unity Green.
People rang bells to express support for health care and other essential workers, and there were hearts everywhere, Cantor said.
West Hartford remains strong
“We’re stronger now, and are going to be stronger coming out of this,” Cantor said.
The New York Times named West Hartford as a suburb worth relocating to from New York City – the only Connecticut town mentioned in the article.
The real estate market in town is hot – with 95% of homes selling over list price, and 89% selling within 90 days of listing. The median sale price is up 15%, Cantor said.
For three years in a row, Niche has named West Hartford one of the top places to live, and in 2020 was the only town or city in Connecticut named as “Best City for Remote Workers” and “Best City to find a Job in CT.”
“This year, West Hartford took first place our a city our size – in the nation – at the U.S. Conference of Mayor’s Climate Protection Award for our virtual net metering,” Cantor said. “Kudos to Catherine Diviney, West Hartford’s energy specialist, for leading the way.”
The town, for the first time in its history, also purchased 100% renewable energy over the past year.
Heading into the future, the town is establishing a 20-member Sustainability Task Force which will assist in preparing for the town’s Sustainable CT application and make recommendations for future activities.
A Technical Advisory Group for Affordable Housing will help develop an affordability plan and housing needs assessment. The town currently has 7.5% deed-restricted affordable housing, and the goal is to get to 10%.
The town has a new partnership between Interval House and the police department to embed an advocate to assist and support domestic violence victims.
The Commission on the Arts has been re-established to reaffirm the town’s “commitment to artistic and cultural excellence and collaboration, creativity, and innovation.”
The town has also re-established a Fair Rent Commission and just this week authorized establishment of a new Civilian Police Review Board. A handful of people have already expressed interest, and Cantor encouraged more to apply through the Town Clerk’s Office.
Accessory Dwelling Units were approved by the Town Council this year, to allow residents to “grow in place, age in place, provide additional income streams,” and to possibly assist those struggling to hold onto homes and have some impact on the grand list. Cantor said the town has already received five letters of interest and two applications for ADUs.
The road diet trial will follow the North Main Street bridge construction, looking at the feasibility of a three-lane configuration.
“Also, we are working on a Mayor’s Youth Advisory Council to engage and create solutions with our youth,” Cantor said. “I think this will be a great addition and a great way for youth to contribute.”
A “Welcome to West Hartford” electronic flip book has been created, and the town and Chamber of Commerce are now developing a “Why West Hartford” tourism website to promote the town’s attractions, entertainment, dining, retail, and more. A web designer has been hired, Cantor said, and the website should be completed this spring.
FEMA reimbursements are expected for Tropical Storm Isaias as well as for COVID expenses, which continue to mount.
Last month, the Town Council approved a unique financial vehicle by authorizing the sale of Pension Obligation Bonds combined with a reserve fund, which Cantor said conservatively should save taxpayers $140 million in net present value, but more likely will save in excess of $200 million over the next 30 years.
Despite the pandemic, Cantor said, 61 new businesses opened in West Hartford during 2020. They were spread throughout town: nine in Bishops Corner, seven on Park Road, five at Corbin’s Corner, eight in Elmwood, nine on New Park Avenue, and 28 in the Center/Blue Back Square.
The town also expanded residential development.
One Park, a $66 million project, was “our largest single development approval,” she said, with 294 units and a mix of historic preservation and new construction with affordable housing component. The project is expected to break ground later this year.
Other residential developments include Berkshire West, 540 New Park, and Ringgold Estates, which sold all of its units by early November.
“It’s really exciting,” Cantor said. “We’ve got a lot going on.”
While no one knows what’s ahead, Cantor is confident that West Hartford is prepared for its future.
She cited the themes of a January 2021 article in Forbes by Mary Meehan, which explores the five biggest trends for the future and how they have been shaped by the events of 2020.
“This pandemic has been a test of character,” Cantor said, a year of leaving things behind, of events that have brought people together and torn them apart, a year of life-changing decisions.
“We have a renewed understanding of what it means to be alive and with the ones we love,” she said.
“We are grateful to be part of this resilient, strong, innovative, welcoming and caring community,” Cantor said to end her address. “I wish you all good health and strength and I really look forward to seeing you all in person soon.”
TD Bank was the presenting sponsor of the event, and gold sponsors included The Mercy Community and UHY Advisors. Silvers sponsors were the American School for the Deaf and Crystal Restoration Services of Connecticut. Westfield Bank was technology sponsor and 20Media was media sponsor for the event.
“Moving forward, the Chamber is here to be a partner,” Executive Director Chris Conway said.
The entire State of the Town can be viewed on YouTube below.
Like what you see here? Click here to subscribe to We-Ha’s newsletter so you’ll always be in the know about what’s happening in West Hartford! Click the blue button below to become a supporter of We-Ha.com and our efforts to continue producing quality journalism.