Mayor Shari Cantor, in her annual address at a sold-out West Hartford Chamber of Commerce luncheon Thursday, said that she is reminded daily of what a great community this is, filled with amazing volunteers who contribute in so many ways.
By Ronni Newton
West Hartford Mayor Shari Cantor is a #ProudMayor who is very aware of the important role of #WHinCT.
#SoWhat? some may say, but changes at the state level, prompted by a new governor and new members in the legislature, will have an impact on all municipalities. New sources of #Revenues will be important to the state’s fiscal condition as will the ability to find #Savings through efficiencies.
Addressing an audience of more than 200 – a sell-out crowd – at at the Chamber of Commerce’s annual State of the Town luncheon Thursday at the Delamar West Hartford Hotel, Cantor provided the business community with her vision for the town’s future as well as a look back at the past year.
Joking that Twitter “is the most effective way to communicate complex and sensitive issues,” Cantor invited the audience to tweet and share – and provided the appropriate hashtags as the structure accompanying her engaging State of the Town address.
Being proactive is important, Cantor said; #Let’sThink&Prepare, she said, to be ready for severe weather – like the arctic cold that is currently gripping West Hartford and much of the nation – and to continue to invest in school security and resources to address the opioid epidemic and to prevent drug overdoses.
What’s #TrendingNow?, and what can be done to make #WestHartfordStronger, and what has improved in the community and is continuing to get #Better?
And finally, Cantor shared some of the #NewVentures – with everything adding up to why West Hartford is consistently considered a #BestPlaceToLive. It’s thanks to #AllofUs, she said.
#SaveTheDate, Cantor added, urging businesses and community members to support – as well as sponsor – two of the town’s upcoming signature events: The 20th Annual Mayor’s Charity Ball on May 11, and Celebrate West Hartford on June 1 and 2.
“It’s not really what you have as a community, but what you do,” Cantor said. “I see what we do as a community, how we treat each other, how we engage … how we connect and serve and make a difference.”
The town’s highly-professional staff is a key part of that, Cantor said. And if we had a “religion” for this town, it would be “education,” with a diverse school population and a commitment to educating the whole student.
“I am very humbled, very proud to lead this very special community,” said Cantor, noting that there were several tragedies in December. “A house destroyed by fire, a fatal accident on Park Road, and then a heartbreaking and tragic event that impacted a beloved family. Our community showed its heart and came running and supported the family and first responders and that’s what makes us stronger. I’m very, very proud of that,” Cantor said.
“I’m very proud of what we are recognized for and what we do – for our welcoming, warm, vibrant, and safe community that is known for our extraordinary schools, strong town management and leadership, engaged citizens and elected officials, and the best residents in the state.”
Despite the state’s fiscal challenges, Connecticut is among the leaders in state tax revenue growth, and there is a lot of positive news and potential, Cantor said.
New revenue streams are being discussed, which will impact all communities, and how the state restructures will also impact all towns.
West Hartford is ninth largest community in the state, and the largest “town” in Connecticut. In fact, now that Framingham, MA, has become a city, it’s the largest town in New England, she said.
West Hartford is already involved in regionalization, through the MDC, the Bloomfield-West Hartford Health District, mutual aid for purchasing, and use of a state health plan. The six firefighters who just graduated from the Hartford fire academy, which also had firefighters from New Britain attending, saved $50,000. Regionalizing other opportunities like firefighter training, animal shelter, and waste and recycling opportunities may be considered, said Cantor.
“Regionalization has its benefits but we always need to look at the impact on the community and the balance of potential savings and loss of control,” said Cantor.
Currently the town receives about $22 million in municipal aid, of which about $20.5 million is education cost sharing. It’s a large share of our budget.
There are multiple discussions happening on the state level, including whether the state sales tax level should be changed to have some go back to municipalities, sports betting – which needs to be discussed on a federal level because of the state’s relationship with the tribes, highway tolls, and legalization of recreational marijuana – which is something legal in 10 states and under consideration in 19 others.
“We scream sometimes – the town manager and I often – scream about the lack of flexibility in the way we fund municipal services,” Cantor said. Personal property, motor vehicle, and real estate taxes are the prime sources.
“What municipalities need is stability and predictability,” Cantor said, and revenue diversification. We don’t have the flexibility and can’t continue to have swings in revenue from the state.
West Hartford is primarily a residential community, Cantor said, and 89 percent of the town’s revenues are from property taxes, and of that about 72 percent of that is from residential property taxes.
“The state thinks that the towns can be more efficient, maybe by regionalization or by streamlining,” Cantor said. But local government expenditures are among the lowest in the country. The state is discussing efficiencies, and there is much more news to follow, she said.
Just today there was discussion of a new public-private partnership at the state level, she said.
“We need to think and prepare, and we control what we can, and we want to be as efficient and productive as we can in this rigid and stable structure,” Cantor said. “We can’t react quickly,” she said, when budget numbers have wide swings.
“We continually analyze the best and most efficient way to provide health care … meet our pension obligations … and we continue to invest in infrastructure,” Cantor said. We currently have stable energy costs because of the investment in infrastructure.
The town is also looking at the impact of SALT – state and local tax – deductions. We live in a high tax state, and are limited in what we can deduct.
“Severe weather is also an increasing challenge. How do we prepare and know that we are ready,” Cantor said.
There are periods of increased rain and drought, she said, and also noted the “broken-apart [polar] vortex” currently impacting the eastern U.S. and Midwest. “It’s going to swing back up 50 degrees, which really puts stress on infrastructure, on pipes, and we need to invest in that infrastructure so that we can be sustainable and react.”
It’s also important to continue to invest in public safety and school and public security, as well as resources to address the opioid and overdose epidemic, which is a” public safety and human service challenge.”
“It’s really exciting,” Cantor said, noting that New England is experiencing an industrial boom. Vacancies have fallen and rents have risen.
“The Greater Hartford region is on its way to becoming a healthcare center for the state and the country … the Hartford region is a top five tech hub in the nation,” Cantor said. There are accelerators and incubators in the planning stage, including fintech with a focus on blockchain and artificial intelligence.
Blockchain, like bitcoin, is really complicated and hard to explain, she said. “We decided to start with ‘box coin,'” Cantor joked, pointing out a box containing a giant chocolate coin on each table – which served as door prizes for lucky attendees.
Statewide the population is declining, but also becoming even more diverse. There are now more than 80 languages spoken in West Hartford Public Schools, Cantor said, and more than 1,900 West Hartford students live in homes where English is not the primary spoken language.
West Hartford is projected to see a 3 percent rise in the school-age population between 2020-2030, she said, one of only 48 Connecticut towns that won’t see a decline.
“People think of West Hartford as a wealthy community and we are. We actually pay the fifth-highest amount in the state of income tax, but there is also significant need,” said Cantor. This year, the town served 740 students through its back-to-school backpack program, there were 408 families given Thanksgiving baskets, and 450 children who participated in the holiday program.
“In addition, over 6,300 bags of food were distributed through the Food Pantry, feeding more than 725 West Hartford families,” Cantor said. Significant wealth, but significant need, she emphasized.
Although West Hartford has one of the highest-ranked school systems in the country, the town’s per pupil spending is ranked 117th out of 169 towns, Cantor said. Spending is far less than in comparable school districts.
Both Hall and Conard were ranked no. 11 and no. 12 best high schools out of 215 high schools in Connecticut, and no. 443 and no. 445 among more than 20,000 schools nationwide, she said.
Quoting Superintendent of Schools Tom Moore, Cantor said, “It is unique to find both of our schools so highly on this list. By almost any metric, we are the most efficient, the most diverse and have the highest number of student receiving free and reduced lunch. Hall and Conard stand out not just for their performance, but also for how efficiently our teachers and administrators work at educating a diverse student body. When taken in context, the results are nothing less than stunning.”
West Harford continues to invest in the highest level of public safety staff, both at the police and fire department, and she continues to hear anecdotal evidence praising their responsiveness.
While the overall crime rate in West Hartford is down 14.5 percent in the past year, motor vehicle thefts in the town, and throughout Connecticut are up.
The PSA, Cantor said, while showing a slide of West Hartford Police K-9 Axel: “Lock your cars, and don’t leave valuable things in your car, and don’t leave your pocketbook with your key fob in the car because that just makes things way too easy.”
West Harford has had its AAA bond rating reaffirmed – one of a select few communities nationwide to have this rating, continues to have a high level of tax collection, the unemployment rate is only 3.3 percent and trending lower, home prices are above average and have increased 82 percent since 2000.
There are a wide variety of housing options in town, and the Grand List has increased by 68 percent in the past 10 years.
There is continued redevelopment – across all portions of town, Cantor said.
She noted the development of The Corbin Collection where Sears once stood, and mentioned how happy Danny Meyer, the founder of Shake Shack and a Trinity College graduate, was to return to the area for the ribbon cutting last year.
Bishops Corner is going to be reinvigorated with the arrival of Target, Spaces will be opening soon in the former REI location in Blue Back Square, the Second Chance Shop just opened on Park Road, and there’s a ribbon cutting at CT Organic Pasta in Elmwood on Friday.
“And the proposed global fintech campus is in the planning stage,” Cantor said, referencing Ideanomics’ purchase of the former UConn campus for its proposed Fintech Village.
New Park Avenue has been named one of 72 opportunity zones in the state. “And of course, as everyone knows there are new restaurants and fitness, and they pretty much line up all across town.”
West Hartford has also been experiencing a residential housing boom, noting residential rental developments like 616 New Park and 243 Steele, single-family homes at Gledhill Estates, and condos on Arlington Road, South Quaker Lane, and Ringgold Estates.
“One Park is the largest multifamily development that we have seen in the town’s history, $60 million to remake 330 living units,” Cantor said, referring to the recently-approved plans for the Sisters of St. Joseph property at Park Road and Prospect Avenue.
She invited the audience to return to the Chamber of Commerce’s Economic Development luncheon in April, to hear more business news.
“How do we become better, how do we continue to drive people to invest and reinvest?” Cantor said. One way is investment in infrastructure, like the improvements made to the Park Road/I-84 interchange.
“I’m so proud of our town engineer, Duane Martin, who led the reconfigured design of the interchange,” she said, an interchange that serves 33,000 vehicles per day. The new interchange reopened on Dec. 7, and further work will be completed this spring.
Eighty-percent of the cost of that project was federally-funded, with the town and the state each funding 10 percent.
The North Main Street bridge will be rehabilitated this spring, with a large portion funded by the state.
Charter Oak International Academy’s new building received a “Green Award” and is LEED Gold-certified, and Hall’s science labs will be upgraded with large support from the state.
Leisure services continue to be upgraded, like the updates at Rockledge, which include the new Rockledge Grille and deck. Buena Vista and Cornerstone have also had upgrades.
“John F. Kennedy said, ‘Change is the law of life, and those who look only to the past and present are certain to miss the future.’ In West Hartford, we have seen changes in how we do business,” Cantor said.
New staff in the past 18 months include Town Manager Matt Hart, Executive Assistant Brittany Stephenson, Police Chief Vernon Riddick, and Fire Chief Greg Priest.
“We have incentive zoning ordinances that we really hope [lead to] some reinvestment in our Center,” said Cantor.
Changes in the industrial zone have allowed for maximizing the potential of transit-oriented development, like additional housing options, and New Park Brewery, as well as a future food truck park.
New Park, as one of 72 opportunity zones in the state, has attracted the attention of developers, and there is also a grant for improvement to the streetscape.
There are also updates in technology, accessibility, and efficiencies, Cantor said. She noted the town’s move to a paperless system, Next Gen 9-1-1 that permits texting, digitizing town records back to 1970, an expedited process for issuing birth certificates and other documents, and other updates including extending Power School to the elementary school level.
Also new will be the town’s logo, Cantor said. There were about 1,000 responses to a survey asking for words and phrases that best define the town, with the top answers being: Top-Rated Schools, Best Place to Raise a Family, High Quality of Life, Vibrant, Diverse and Engaged Community. From that, several logo options were developed.
Luncheon attendees were given the options to vote on their choice from among the two final options, and an online survey will soon follow inviting the community to vote as well.
“We talk about being the best place to live, and not only do we think we are the best place to live but all those places think we’re the best place to live,” Cantor said, showing a slide that included accolades from U.S. News, Washington Post, Money Magazine, Family Circle, Niche, and others.
“We are always evolving and striving to be the best community we can be,” said Cantor. “We cannot stand still or we will fall behind. We continue to innovate and strategize, strengthen and build our community. We are better when we work together and support each other,” said Cantor.
“I want to thank you all for your investment and commitment to West Hartford and for all you do to support the whole community. I also see how you support and welcome each other at ribbon cuttings, business after hours, Connections breakfasts, FLOW events, Economic Development updates, golf tournaments, and so much more,” Cantor said.
“As your volunteer mayor, I am reminded daily of the amazing volunteers that contribute in so many ways to our community.”
Cantor urged everyone to attend two upcoming signature events – the Mayor’s Charity Ball on May 11, which benefits The Town That Cares and Playhouse on Park, as well as Celebrate West Hartford which will be held this year on June 1 and 2.
“Thank you again for everything that you do for our community,” Cantor said, receiving a rousing round of applause.
This year’s Chamber of Commerce luncheon was presented by sponsor TDBank, and she was introduced by Senior Vice President Steve Litchfield, a longtime West Hartford resident.
Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Chris Conway also spoke to the audience, welcoming everyone to the annual event.
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!