Alienated Public Demands a Voice in City Hall

from 21 July 2014 march

From the moment Mayor Segarra stood in front of City Hall to announce his plan to relocate the New Britain Rock Cats to Hartford on the public dime, there have been unanswered questions:

How exactly would this (fully or partially) publicly-funded private business provide true economic development for the city?  How many full time, living wage jobs would this create for residents of Hartford? Why were Hartford voters and residents excluded from the conversation until this was declared a “done deal” by the mayor? Why build in this location instead of at the existing Dillon Stadium near Colt Park? Why were key stakeholders in this area omitted from the secret dealings, finding out only after word of the deal reached the media? Why was a stadium not included in the Downtown North Plan and why is this able to displace the types of developments, like mixed-use residential, that had been discussed with residents for months? What kind of environmental studies have been done and how would the expected increase in traffic of this area impact Hartford’s already high asthma rates? Why did the mayor in his press release announcing that he wanted the stadium relocation agreement item withdrawn from the City Council agenda, fail to indicate that he would be making no effort to withdraw the related resolution for City purchase of 271 and 273 Windsor Street, a 2.08 acre vacant parcel considered necessary for the stadium development, a parcel that would cost the City of Hartford $1.7M? 

Mary Sanders of Hartford

The meetings of people in opposition to the so-called “done deal” began back in June, with various groups gathering across Hartford. These smaller discussions merged after the first round of meetings happening over one weekend. Residents went from private living rooms to a centrally-located cultural space. Meetings went on during World Cup games, during the Greater Hartford Festival of Jazz, during a time of year when many are away on vacation. Those who are baseball fans have said they do not appreciate games being played when it comes to politics and tax dollars.

City Councilperson Ken Kennedy was quick to dismiss some perspectives because those individuals are engaged enough to participate at every chance they are given; he painted their opinions as merely being anti-Segarra. The coalition meetings reflected a reality other than what Kennedy had presented to the press: with one exception, regular attendees were not those speaking out in City Hall at each public hearing. This was evidenced in the need for public hearing process to be explained many times over.

The public hearing notice and agenda package had been revised and re-sent multiple times by the Town Clerk’s Office. Dates were incorrect. Items were moved. The OMBLA meeting that began at 5:30 was relocated to the other side of the building.

sign up sheet provided

Sign up sheets that forced people to say they were going to speak in favor or against a proposal — no room for nuanced belief in government — were ready at 6pm. Thirty minutes before the hearing began, two had signed in favor and eighteen against, but the names on those sheets did not accurately reflect who spoke.

Raul DeJesus moderated the public hearing in an unorthodox manner. Instead of calling individuals up to speak in the order they signed in, he asked if anyone wanted to speak in favor or against. This was the method all night. A number who signed up to speak left without addressing the Council, and others who had not signed in walked up to the mic whenever the spirit moved. Two individuals spoke more than once. Many did not provide their names, nor were they asked to state their names and addresses for the record when this information was omitted.

Those attending the hearing were, however, reminded by DeJesus throughout the evening that the room was warm and that there was a television set up elsewhere in the building where the proceedings could be viewed. Council was generous with the bottled water.

at City Hall

The Hartford Coalition to Stop the Stadium has been grappling with all angles of this proposed development, but has managed to agree on a few points: the development should not use public dollars and there should be alternative economic development ideas.

With one of two stadium resolutions withdrawn, the coalition called the action preceding the public hearing a victory march. But, once inside City Hall, it was not clear if all on Council understood there had been two stadium resolutions and that one was the first public hearing item.

The first item on the agenda was a proposal to use public funding to purchase land directly tied to the stadium project:

There is nothing in that language to suggest that the City is attempting to purchase this land for any reason other than the stadium project. Still, when the word “stadium” was used, DeJesus attempted to shut down comment he did not find pertinent.

Daniel Piper called it “dishonest” to keep conversation of Rock Cats off when the parcel sale is directly related to it. He said he thought that Council was intentionally shutting down conversation.

JoAnne Bauer told Council that it makes sense to talk about what the stadium means for residents when the Rensselaer resolution is directly tied. She said “the numbers about the ballpark just don’t make sense.” The “renderings of ballpark seem to disconnect the North End of Hartford” and this project means that “the ultimate tax burden will continue on the residents.”

“Let this deal die,” urged Nick Wolf, a former Hartford resident. Echoing previous speakers, he told Council: “Don’t call bond deal and land deal two different deals. They are the same deal.”

Three people spoke who may have been in favor. A resident who did not clearly state her name said there has not been enough information for people to voice opposition, but then said she has received a lot of information in her neighborhood. Another individual who described herself as a community advocate said she supports the stadium because “we need something new.”

Evelyn Richardson said she was in favor, but mostly talked about things unrelated to the stadium, such as why people in the North End do not vote or come to public hearings.

All others speaking — 22 in all — were on the fence or opposed to some or all of the proposal connected to the stadium.

This included Nick Carbone who explained that the City originally sold the property in question to Rensselaer and it had a revisionary clause. He said that if the land had not been used for its stated purpose, the City may have the right to take it back without spending money on it.

Carbone said the City of Hartford is going to be “tightly squeezed” without a tax base due to all the “ghost buildings” in Hartford.

“We have a financial problem” of a “large magnitude,” he said. “You can’t be fighting New Britain.” The “distressed municipalities,” he said, need to stick together.

Standing on the steps at City Hall

Others had different ideas for how the money proposed to be spent on 271 and 273 Windsor Street could be spent. A youngster from Preston Street said she’d like the money used for “our schools.”

Another resident wanted to know how the City of Hartford was going to purchase land that it doesn’t have money for.

“It’s all speculation,” she said of the possible economic benefits the stadium could bring. Like others before, she reminded elected officials that the City has been “selling off our assets” to balance the budget.

“We’re calling for better economic development opportunities for Hartford,” said Wildaliz Bermudez. “How is it fathomable […] to consider voting almost $2M of money that we don’t have?”

Carmen Rodriguez, a city resident, said “there’s something wrong” when Hartford is almost broke but money is being used to build a stadium. “What is it that is most important in the lives of our citizens?,” she asked.

“The land could be used for something more beneficial for the people of Hartford,” said Cornell Lewis who now lives in Bloomfield, but previously resided in Hartford for twenty years.

Lewis compared Hartford to ancient Rome, saying that then when people could not eat, Caesar expanded Circus Maximus in hopes of suppressing rebellion of those living in poverty.

“Instead of giving the people what they need,” Lewis said, today’s politicians say “‘create another coliseum.'”

The message was clear: residents want economic development and are not subscribing to the notion that a minor league baseball stadium would provide this.

Craig Stallings said he was opposed to the land deal and urged Council to find “innovative development” options for the city.

Valerie Bryan suggested Hartford focus on “sustainable jobs” like composting restaurant food waste.

Hyacinth Yennie, before the meeting, said the “City needs to fix its roads,  schools, address blighted buildings that make our city look bad. Our home owners can’t afford to pay any more. If indeed it was going to be a big return on the $60 million then we could consider it. It’s just not a well-thought-out plan. This city had a stadium before and it did not work. Why do we think this one well be any better? There has to be a better plan. This one will not save us.”

Though the Segarra and Deller team have said that they would encourage the development of a supermarket in Downtown North, not all were buying the viability of one near a stadium.

“Nobody’s going to put a supermarket in a ballpark,” said Nick Wolf.

Bryan was also concerned that the Shop Rite plan had been blown by the proposed changes to the Downtown North Plan.

Andrew May

“When you’re spending public money you have to be very, very cautious,” said Valerie Bryan, who has lived in Hartford since 1977.

She said she is “appalled and disappointed by what has transpired so far” with this deal. “You have to protect the public trust.”

How can hundreds of thousands of dollars be spent in private,” Bryan wanted to know.

Waiting for the public hearing to begin on July 21, 2014

There has been a disconnect between City Hall and residents regarding what the role of elected and appointed officials should be. Thelma Cheatem of Hartford said, “You’re supposed to be doing things that we need you to do.”

The public “elected you guys to represent us,” said one Hartford resident. “Find out how we feel about this” before making decisions.

“I don’t see none of y’all in the neighborhood,” said Patricia Nelson, “unless you are getting votes.”

JoAnne Bauer insisted that with these types of decisions, “we have to involve the residents of Hartford.”

Mary Sanders, a Hartford resident, told the few Council members in attendance at Monday’s hearing that they need to involve the community in development plans before spending any public money.

Councilperson Larry Deutsch asked those in attendance: “Are speakers aware that the mayor and those who said this is a done deal are not here tonight?”

Another city resident asked: “What ever happened to the real politicians that listened to people?”

No vote took place on Monday night, as planned. The next public hearing on the stadium before City Council is planned for mid-August.

Yesterday, the Planning and Zoning Commission had its own public hearing with the stadium on the agenda: “Text Amendments to Division 5, B-1 Downtown Development District to permit a stadium by Special Permit and Text Amendment to Division 1, Section 182-Summary Schedule of District Requirements.” Residents spoke at this meeting as well. The commission agreed to table additional discussion on the item until its next meeting.

Chris Hutchinson: The stadium deal is “a bust for those living in Hartford” whether it is publicly or privately funded. The public-private partnership that the mayor is proposing is a “scam.”
Ken Krayeske says: “I think breeding unicorns would be better economic development than Mayor Segarra’s stadium pipe dream.   Seriously, though, revitalization of that space should focus on a green food economy. The neighborhood considered a supermarket, but let’s look bolder and bigger – why not farm to table food for the North End. Let’s create a food co-op to alleviate the food desert, and build greenhouses on the other parking lots to grow local staples: tomatoes, lettuce, onions, chickens. Micro-level economic development will better serve Hartford and create solid jobs, and provide good nutrition, as opposed to the chimeric candy the Mayor offers us.”
Anne Goshdigian: “I arrived back in Hartford just about a year ago, after several years living in the ‘Quiet Corner’ of the state, and in northern Vermont. No matter where I lived, I had always thought of Hartford as ‘home’. But as I drove and walked through this place that I have a true love for, I saw things that disturbed me–things that saddened me and gave me a bad feeling. The amount of poverty and homelessness here was jarring. The buildings that had been destroyed in the name of development, the vast numbers of stores that had been closed, the condition of the schools, the dearth of affordable housing, the sky-high unemployment, and the lost, deadened look in the eyes of the people in my neighborhood–devoid of hope–were not MY Hartford. It’s a grim picture that has stuck with me. It didn’t take me long to come to the conclusion that my city had become a place of forgotten people–invisible people–yet I saw that everything downtown now was fast becoming geared to the upscale. When Segarra stood in front of City Hall less than two months ago and announced that the city was putting up a baseball stadium to the tune of $60 million, and that it was the spark that would revitalize the city, I couldn’t believe it. Only an idiot would think that a project like that was the key to curing Hartford’s ills. But so many people reacted as if it were a great idea, and that’s what motivated me to find a way to try and raise public awareness of the real issues I mentioned above. I can’t remember exactly how I first heard about the Coalition, but it was about a week after the mayor’s announcement. I knew right away this was something I had to be involved in; I couldn’t just let this deal go down without putting up a good fight. From the moment I went to my first meeting, I knew there would be no turning back for me. I knew I had to give this opposition movement my all, and I also knew I had good speaking ability and good writing ability to offer up to the group. Being with like-minded people has energized me, and I can honestly say I’ve been living and breathing the ‘Stop The Stadium’ movement sixteen hours a day for the past month. I don’t think I could stop now even if I tried. Hartford needs to be convinced that whatever changes are going to be made in this city must be of benefit to the majority of the people who make their homes here. Anything else is unacceptable.”
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