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As 'Forgotten City' Basks In Spotlight, Its Revived Downtown Shows The Way For Hartford

July 17,2016 19:11

Cleveland, basking in the light of a national political convention, has the sort of revived downtown Hartford. Cleveland, basking in the light of a national political convention, has the sort of revived downtown Hartford. Dan Haar. Cleveland, basking ...and more »

CLEVELAND — It's late on a Sunday night on Euclid Avenue, a few blocks down from the largest theater district outside of Broadway, a few days before hordes of Republicans and reporters arrive, and downtown is not ready to quit.The cafes on E. 4th Street remain abuzz as a horse-drawn carriage passes a lively hotel. Four blocks away, as midnight approached, the landmark Terminal Tower, aglow in red, white and blue, lords over a Frisbee game of a dozen local kids on the lawn of the newly redesigned, $50 million Public Square.
This is not your father's Cleveland, Mistake on the Lake, America's punching bag, where the Cuyahoga River burned and the Rust Belt refined its reputation as a place where cities die.And it's not the same downtown where Mike Baruschke, born in Middletown, Conn., and raised in Durham, moved 19 years ago for a job in the securities trading business. Like the new urban settlers in downtown Hartford, he was in an early wave, never sure the time would come for this gritty, historic city built on manufacturing and finance.

But the time did come, and if the Republican National Convention is a celebration, the set-up started decades ago, even before Baruschke and Denise Huck set up house in a warehouse district that was desolate after hours.The lesson for Connecticut from this metro area that's just about twice the population of greater Hartford is this: Be patient and keep doing what you're doing.There will not be a LeBron James with an NBA title bringing one million people to a parade downtown, as Cleveland sweetly saw last month. There will not be 10 fully restored historic theaters, as our State Street was destroyed in the idiotic name of urban renewal. But progress for once-downtrodden, regional cities is in the grasp."For most of the time, Cleveland has been Cleveland. It's kind of lumbered along," said Baruschke, tall, with a long, gray ponytail. "I kept saying, people don't get it — this is the hidden gem of the Midwest."
To hear the Greater Cleveland Partnership tell it, the progress has been steady and the work arduous since the days when LeBron was a small child in Akron. "We've been working at rebuilding and revitalizing our downtown for 25 years. We think we've earned this," said Joe Roman, the private-sector economic development partnership's CEO.Baruschke recalls something more like an on-off switch."All of a sudden, 2012, everyone said 'We've got to live downtown!'" He points across Euclid Avenue to a converted apartment building where he once had an office. "I don't know what the catalyst was, but once it started, I mean, it just snowballed."The numbers are impressive and, more to the point, an inspiration for a small, eastern city with fantastic proximity in the megalopolis, relatively cheap rents and high median salaries for professionals. Cleveland had just a few thousand downtown residents in 2000, and now has about 14,000 — compared with Hartford's rise from just a few hundred to about 2,500 over the last 15 years.And, Roman said, the central district is adding 1,000 to 1,500 apartments a year, many with little or no public subsidies.Two luxury hotels opened recently, including the Metropolitan, which also has apartments and stores, in a long-vacant, 27-story former office building that closely resembles 777 Main St. in Hartford.The number of downtown residents between 25 and 34 years old, with a college degree, tripled from 556 in 2000 to 1,764, according to a report by the Downtown Cleveland Alliance."They are writing leases to things that are not built yet," said Huck, who, like Baruschke, is a youthful, semi-retired, former corporate denizen.All of this is happening as the number of people working in downtown Cleveland fell by 17 percent between 2002 and 2014, to under 100,000, though the region as a whole has added jobs.Cleveland's strong professional services sector and its traditional chemicals and coatings industries are driving some of the growth, along with bioscience companies spun off from Cleveland Clinic and the University Hospitals system, both of which are much larger than Yale New Haven, and by Case Western Reserve University. All three institutions are a few miles to the east, in University Circle, another hot spot that's being connected to downtown by a new, $300 million boulevard.In between downtown and University Circle, Roman said, "The neighborhoods have seen a lot of disinvestment, so there's a lot of vacant parcels. We think that land will become extremely valuable."That's the same idea Hartford has at DoNo, the area just north of downtown. "It's a slow process," said Shirwanda Odom, a nursing home coordinator at a hospital, who, with her husband, Joe, waved at the passing Lake Erie cruise boat, the Goodtime II, heading back downtown on that same Sunday evening. The downtown renaissance, she said, "is only for the people who can afford it."But she and Joe, a maintenance employee for a nonprofit agency, both said attitudes and the spirit of the city are picking up, broadly."We were the forgotten city," Shirwanda Odom said.

Downtown Cleveland,republican convention,Hartford apartments

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