Affordable Housing, Community Development

2015 IForum Season Starts Strong with Insight on How to Revitalize CT Cities

 

Governor Malloy kicked off the first IForum of the 2015 season – Connecticut’s Post-Industrial Cities: Leveraging the Past to Brighten the Futureto an eager group of mayors, first selectmen and planners, nonprofit and community leaders, and federal and state officials.  He emphasized his administration’s continued commitment to the state’s cities – in the areas of transit, education, employment and public safety. The conversation did not revolve exclusively around the largest cities in the state, but rather included voices from municipalities ranging in size, from Mayor Deb Hinchey of Norwich to First Selectman Ed Mone of Thomaston.

The Massachusetts panelists translated their perspectives on mid-sized urban cities. Ben Forman, Director of the MassINC Gateway Cities Innovation Institute, expanded on key drivers needed to support New England’s cities, including: leveraging education as a key asset (by focusing on the wealth of the educational institutions present in our cities, instead of an overreliance on aggregate test data); a diverse economic development plan relying not just on housing; and transit. He remarked that our cities were never originally designed for automobiles but rather for street cars and that the opportunity for density (and therefore walk-ability) relies on improved mass transit. He highlighted the regional transit system evolving in Connecticut, and that it will more efficiently move a greater population to regional job centers than other systems. 

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Prabal Chakrabarti, Senior Vice President at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, described the innovative Working Cities Challenge grant program, which seeks to “foster cross-sector leadership” to affect meaningful civic infrastructure revitalization in mid-sized cities. Piloted in Massachusetts, the program is supporting an array of initiatives designed to help low income residents.

Claire Ricker, Senior Planner of Holyoke, described the city’s landmark downtown urban renewal plan, which leverages Holyoke’s heritage as the first planned industrial city along with its current energy infrastructure to become a truly sustainable city. The 700 acre district includes a palette of economic development opportunities including an affordable housing set aside incentive, complete streets ordinance, and historic zone along with qualifying for programs like Community Development Block Grants and New Markets Tax Credits.

The audience also heard from Secretary Ben Barnes of the Office of Policy and Management, the state’s budget agency. Secretary Barnes linked the success of Connecticut’s cities to the state’s investment in transit and housing, highlighting transit oriented development (TOD) opportunities. He noted that even in a down economy, communities like Stratford have attracted investment by building along its rail station.

Robust conversation followed as the audience highlighted the need to engage corporate stakeholders and the opportunities for brownfield redevelopment. Ben Forman remarked that while the corporate presence in mid-sized cities has changed with the economy, those progressive chambers of commerce are realizing the need to shift their agendas to include urban renewal and education reform efforts. He concluded that through a commitment to urban revitalization by way of sound economic development, education and transit policies, these cities will become the “jewels in [New England’s] crown.”

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