Mayor Shari Cantor, in her annual address at a West Hartford Chamber of Commerce luncheon Friday, reflected on current trends, the town’s past, and provided an optimistic outlook for the future.
By Ronni Newton
Engaging with the audience through the use of a “Wordle” game that was solved at the close of the presentation, West Hartford Mayor Shari Cantor reviewed the past year and looked ahead to the future at the annual “State of the Town” luncheon.
The event, hosted by the West Hartford Chamber of Commerce, returned to an in-person format after taking place as a virtual address last year, and well over 100 people attended the luncheon Friday at the Pond House Cafe.
“The pandemic has reshaped the world, not changing everything but accelerating many things, from population decline to digital revolution – in other words, 2030 arrived early,” Cantor said.
“Wordle West Hartford style” – and Cantor admitted that she took some liberties so the game would make sense with her address – began with the word “MONEY” offered up by former Town Manager Matt Hart, who was in the audience.
Trends defining 2022
The past year was far more volatile than anyone could have expected, and in defining 2022, “uncertainty” is the word that comes to mind,” Cantor said, and, noting that she was purposely dressed in the colors of the Ukrainian flag. she shared some resources for the community to assist with humanitarian aid efforts.
Even before Russia’s unprovoked attack, however, the pandemic, supply chain issues, work-life balance (“work from home” and “work from anywhere” trends), a focus on diversity and equity and social justice, blockchain and crypto-currency, healthcare changes, employees’ increased desire for flexibility and technology needs, created unprecedented changes in the world, and will continue to have a strong impact on the future.
“The pandemic did ignite a home buying frenzy throughout the country. Connecticut and West Hartford certainly have experienced this trend,” Cantor said. “Millennials – defined as those born in mid-80s and mid-90s – account for about 70 million people, currently the largest generation and are the fastest growing segment of home buyers, accounting for 37% of the national home buying market.”
At the same time, Millennials are hitting major milestones like marrying and having children, and even buying their first homes later in life than previous generations.
“West Harford is leading the way,” Cantor said, noting a recent article in Connecticut Magazine which listed the town as among the top 15 real estate markets in the state with houses selling in the past year, on average, at 3% over the asking price and in just over a week. She quoted a statement by a realtor made for the article that stated “Anything in West Hartford that lists is going to sell in 15 minutes.”
2021 in review
“The state of West Hartford is strong,” Cantor said, as she took the audience through a month-by-month look highlighting major events as well as actions by the Town Council that shaped the previous year.
January featured the approval of an ordinance permitting Accessory Dwelling Units in all residential zones, providing a greater range of housing affordability options for residents, and to date there have been five applications for ADUs and several are under construction, she said.
The Town Council’s authorization of a strategic financing plan through the sale of $365 million in Pension Obligation Bonds is estimated to save $140 million over the next 30 years, Cantor said.
Also in January, COVID-19 vaccination efforts began for individuals over age 75.
In February, the town’s municipal electricity use for fiscal year 2019-2020 was officially 100% renewable, and the town “partnered with Bonneville Environmental Foundation to purchase Green-e renewable energy certificates to balance the 15 million kilowatt-hours of electricity used in municipal operations, including all town and school buildings and street and traffic lights.”
Vaccination clinics were held for teachers and staff.
The Town Council established the Civilian Police Review Board, an effort that had been underway even before the passage of Police Accountability Legislation required it, and that board is up and running and has reviewed multiple cases. Thus far, they have upheld all of the actions by the West Hartford Police Department, Cantor said.
West Hartford was once again named the “Best Place to Live in Connecticut” by Niche.com in March.
The Council formed the Sustainability Advisory Group, which helped the town achieve Sustainable CT Silver Certification – the highest level available at this time. An Affordable Housing Advisory Group was also established.
“Our town declared racism as a public health crisis in March 2021,” Cantor said. “Many special efforts were made to support our Asian American and Pacific Islander business and restaurant owners and our public schools developed social-emotional learning curricula to help students process the intensity of the racial and COVID-related trauma they absorbed over the spring and summer.”
In April, with the collaboration of Wakefern, the town established one of the largest indoor COVID-19 vaccination sites in the region at the former ShopRite store.
The ArtBarrier murals project was launched, literally bringing “art to the street” as artists applied for the opportunity to beautify outdoor dining barriers.
The Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) was launched in April, a team that has been extremely valuable in town efforts particularly with the distribution of N95 masks and COVID test kits.
“U.S. News & World Report” once again ranked West Hartford’s high schools rank among the Top 10 for traditional high schools in the state.
May brought Hollywood to West Hartford, with the filming of “Call Jane” featuring Elizabeth Banks, Sigourney Weaver, Kate Mara, and Chris Messina at various locations in town. The film will be in theaters in the fall.
Major business transactions in May included the sale of Blue Back Square to Charter Realty for $40 million, and the sale of the Whole Foods building on Raymond Road to ALNIC LLC for $35.3 million.
The Mayor’s Youth Council was officially formed in May. “It’s actually the third mayor’s youth council, but in the last 50 years it’s the first one,” Cantor said. WHy West Hartford, a website to help market the town, was also launched in May.
The UniteCT van stopped at Town Hall and the Faxon Library in West Hartford, helping eligible residents impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic apply for rental and utility assistance.
“The Pride Flag was raised on Unity Green on the first of June,” Cantor said, noting that the town green also was officially re-dedicated with its new name. June ended with Pride Day, and “it really felt incredible to have that vibrancy,” Cantor said of the event.
Also during June, the town’s MLK39 mural on the side of the Noah Webster Library was unveiled, 16 witness stones were installed at Old Center Cemetery, and on Juneteenth there was “a community celebration that really was inspirational.”
Other June events included the Town Council directing the town manager to study recreational cannabis use and sale in town, and a beam-signing for the town’s newest transit-oriented development project at 540 New Park.
In July, the town announced the outcome of its historic sale of pension funding bonds, Cantor said, a sale of $324.3 million in pension bonds at a 2.539%, much less than the town’s anticipated target rate of 3%.
The purchase of the former St. Brigid School at 100 Mayflower Street was announced in July, along with $2.5 million in grants from the state for a project which will replace the 100-year old former Elmwood Elementary School building that has been serving as the community center. Feasibility studies are underway now for “what can be a community center for the next 50 or 100 years,” Cantor said.
The Connecticut Department of the American Legion honored West Hartford firefighter Steeve Parent as the 2021 statewide Firefighter of the Year at a ceremony held July 10, 2021, Cantor said, the second year in a row that a West Hartford firefighter received the honor.
The North Main Street Road Diet trial began in August, and Center Streets returned with a large turnout, Cantor said.
West Hartford Public Schools announced a plan to return to full in-person format, and reported enrollment was up “and that is not where many other districts are,” Cantor said.
The WeHa Bear Fair, a fundraiser that supported a dozen nonprofits, came to town in August. The Cantors sponsored one of the bears that had been on display, which is temporarily in their garage where “it scares me often,” she said.
The next Wordle clue, provided by Fire Chief Greg Priest, was “STORM,” and storms were indeed a focus of August, with several 100-year storms including Fred, Henri, and, in September, the aftermath of Ida – all of which resulted in significant flooding.
The town’s fire and police departments held a memorial for the 20th anniversary of 9-11 at the Brace Road fire station, and in September the town and Chamber of Commerce partnered fora job and resource fair.
October saw the return of the Park Road Parade, honoring first responders and other hometown heroes for their contributions during the pandemic. Sixty members of CERT graduated, and at the end of October, “thousands of costumed kids enjoyed the West Hartford Halloween Stroll.”
Rob Riccobon was sworn in as West Hartford’s new assistant police chief in November, and the town hosted walk-in COVID vaccination clinics. Due to redistricting, the town learned it would now be split into five State House districts (rather than three) and the process of updating polling places is being undertaken by a Town Council committee.
In December, “omicron hit and there were surges of testing and booster clinics,” Cantor said, with the number of COVID cases reaching an all-time high. The town acquired 230,000 adult N95 masks, and CERT oversaw the distribution to residents, schools, childcare centers, and businesses.
The Town Council approved an ordinance banning ATVs from public property.
A major change to impact the town in December was the announcement that Matt Hart had been named executive director of the Capital Region Council of Governments (CRCOG). Rick Ledwith, a 20-year town employee who had been executive director of Human Resources, was appointed acting town manager, “and he is doing a great job,” Cantor said.
Other recent director changes including the hiring of Laura Imscher as director of Libraries, and the promotion of Duane Martin to director of Community Development.
Major projects and initiatives for 2022
Cantor provided an overview of what can be expected – at least what is known now – for 2022.
The Town Council’s Community Planning and Economic Development Committee (CPED), chaired by Leon Davidoff, has a busy agenda, including the focus on new Transit-Oriented Development zoning.
“New Park – it has seen so much growth and interest,” Cantor said, and the goal is to redevelop in a way that supports the transit system. The recently-announced plans for the former Puritan building to become mixed-use residential and commercial – supported by a more than $950,000 brownfield grant from the state, and the soon-to-be-completed development at 540 New Park are just some examples she cited.
“You will be seeing a transformation on New Park Avenue,” Cantor said, not just with development but also thanks to a $3.7 million state grant awarded to the town which will be used for streetscape improvements, traffic calming, and connectivity to the Trout Brook Trail and CTfastrak stations, “and hopefully pave the way for a train station.” Preliminary designs will be ready this spring.
“BUILD” was Michael Cantor’s contribution to the Wordle puzzle, and that launched an outline of plans to focus on speeding and traffic control to address safety issues. Riggs Avenue is currently under evaluation.
Federal infrastructure funds will provide largely regional investment, but Cantor said may help with culvert construction and public transit.
“West Hartford’s expanded outdoor dining corrals during the pandemic was recognized by the Connecticut Chapter of the American Planning Association with its Annual Planning Award for ‘Tactical Urbanism,'” Cantor said, and Tuesday night the Council will consider an updated ordinance.
“We are an envy of places around the state,” she said, with 1,500 outdoor dining seats, 1,000 of which are in the Center, that residents and people from throughout the region have grown to love.
This year, the Council will be looking at an ordinance regulating recreational cannabis, Cantor said.
Stormwater management will also be a focus. “You have to fix the bottom before you fix the top,” Cantor said, and the first tier of work is estimated to cost $120 million, for which she is hopeful there will be some federal support.
The Finance and Administration Committee will be actively involved in the management of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds, investing in the community for the long-term and through “a lens of equity and sustainability.” While the town used $4 million of the funds on lost revenue – which was permitted – that was a one-time occurrence, Cantor said.
Investment of ARPA monies going forward will include broadband accessibility, improvements to the Center, playground and park upgrades, wayfinding signage, and historical markers.
The Human and Community Services Committee, chaired by Adrienne Billings-Smith, is involved in projects related to leisure and social services.
“TRAIL” was the next Wordle guess [provided by this writer].
Eisenhower Park pool, the town’s only pool on the north end of town (and one which Cantor said had been unchanged since her childhood) will be rebuilt on an accelerated schedule, a feasibility study and vision plan is in the process of being established for the 100 Mayflower Street property, and the 3.1-mile Trout Brook Trail will be completed by the summer of 2023.
The library “continues to do incredible work,” Cantor said, noting the installation of smart lockers in Bishops Corner to facilitate curbside pick-up and the creation of study pods at the Noah Webster branch. Future plans include the launch of Studio 20 South, “a creative, collaborative, and educational space that provides dedicated equipment, computers, software, production and co-working furnishings. Studio 20 South is intended for small groups or individuals who seek to create media projects involving, but not limited to, video, audio, music, photography,” Cantor said.
The Public Safety Committee will be overseeing a facilities study. “Our police station is 100 years old,” Cantor said, and there have been challenges with several of the fire stations as well, including the recent failure of a boiler at Station No. 5. Funds have been allocated this year for a new animal shelter, and a new indoor shooting range, which is a regional resource, is planned for the following year.
The Public Safety Committee also is focused on car burglaries, something which is a national trend. In 2021, West Hartford Police investigated 304 vehicle burglaries and 86 stolen vehicles, and has been participating in the Greater. Hartford Regional Auto Theft Task Force which has recovered 103 vehicles, made 38 arrests, recovered 10 firearms, served 31 warrants, and made 27 other arrests.
“Our police department has done an extraordinary job with this rash of car burglaries,” Cantor said, and is also committed to prevention. There is $500,000 of ARPA funds committed to a camera surveillance system which will help monitor high-activity areas.
ARPA funds have also been used to purchase 140 body worn cameras for the police department, which officers began utilizing on Feb. 14. The program was implemented ahead of the mandate included in the Police Accountability law.
Public Works, Facilities, and Sustainability, chaired by Ben Wenograd, will be looking at a proposal for a new Materials Solutions Center for the Public Works facility on Brixton Street. The state continues to struggle with ways to manage waste, Cantor said.
“WASTE” was the Wordle suggestion by Public Works Director John Phillips.
West Hartford has a robust economy, Cantor said, and the Grand List increased 12.2% last year, a testament to the town’s strength and vibrancy as well as pandemic-related economic factors.
“We have very high occupancy and low vacancy rates,” she said. While 10% vacancy is considered “stable” and 7-8% is very good, right now West Hartford’s vacancy rates are 6.4% for office space, 3% for multifamily residential, 3.1% for industrial, and 9.1% for retail. “Based on this data, all of West Hartford’s real estate markets represent a stable market with multi-family and industrial demand outpacing supply,” she said.
There continues to be more interest in multifamily housing, and the Town Council just approved a new 48-unit project for 920-924 Farmington Avenue to replace two outdated office buildings. Construction is also underway for the 26-unit Residences at Berkshire Road Project at Berkshire and New Britain Avenue, and the 292-unit One Park project at the corner of Park Road and Prospect, which includes 30 deed-restricted affordable units.
Other major construction projects either nearing completion or on the horizon include the 17,000 square foot Hartford HealthCare building at South Main and Park Road which is supposed to open later this month.
The former UConn property has been sold to West Hartford 1 LLC. “We are waiting to hear more information about that,” Cantor said, but in the meantime the owner is allowing St. Francis Hospital employees and partners to utilize the parking lot to assist with an urgent need caused by their parking garage being deemed unsafe. The new owner has also committed to allow continued town use of the ballfields.
While COVID is still a factor, “our numbers are really good right now,” Cantor said. “It feels really good to have a 1.6% positivity rate and low community transmission right now.”
The town’s 14-day average positivity rate per 100,000 has continued to drop and is now in the yellow zone with fewer than 10 cases, and 85.67% of residents are fully vaccinated, and the percentage of students vaccinated are in the top five in the state, with 94% of 12- to 17-year-olds fully vaccinated and 60% of the youngest age group having received two shots.
“Hopefully the worst is over and we can get back to some form of normal,” Cantor said. “I’m so proud of how resilient this community has been and how supportive we have been of each other.”
The answer to the Wordle puzzle – guessed by someone in the room who was not tipped off – was “DREAM.”
“Dreams and dedication are a powerful combination,” Cantor said, quoting William Longgood.
Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Chris Conway welcomed the guests to the luncheon, and Chamber First Vice President Chip Janiszewski also addressed the crowd.
Steve Litchfield of TDBank, the presenting sponsor, introduced Cantor.
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