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The Hartford Courant

Hartford: The Little Engine That Could

By Stan Simpson

November 19, 2003
Copyright ©2003
The Hartford Courant. All rights reserved.

Five years ago today, Robert Kraft's words said one thing, but his body language gave us a whole different interpretation.

While Gov. John Rowland was ebullient at a packed state Capitol press conference about plans to bring Kraft's New England Patriots to Hartford, Kraft seemed distracted. Squirming and fidgeting, he rarely looked up as Rowland spoke.

I had a judgment to make. Was I going to believe Kraft, or his lying eyes? I chose the latter. You know the rest. Six months later, Kraft pulled out. The state was moving slowly in getting the stadium site ready, giving Kraft the time to renege and return to Foxboro and the larger Boston market.

Rowland got played. Hartford got dogged. And once again the capital city's psyche and inferiority complex took a beating. Hartford was already wounded by the loss of many of its professional sports attractions - the Whalers; a minor league basketball franchise; women's professional basketball; an arena football team. As a sports city, Hartford wasn't getting it done. That attitude permeated to downtown development.

Hartford was the Little Engine That Couldn't.

Now, some of the pessimists are being muted. They're being drowned out by the optimists who say that Hartford simply needs to think it can, think it can, think it can become a revitalized city.

Tony Colon can see Adriaen's Landing taking shape daily from the window of his Charter Oak Avenue liquor store. He renamed his business Adriaen's Landing Package Store shortly after the big announcement five years ago. He moved to the city from Puerto Rico in the early 1960s unemployed, but vowing to be a stakeholder. Today, he and his family own both the package store and an adjacent grocery.

There is not a day that goes by, Colon says, when he doesn't check on the progress of Adriaen's.

"I want to see how my baby's coming," he says with a laugh, sitting on a chair in his store, and sporting a sweater, slacks and straw hat. "That's our hope."

There's renewed interest in downtown. The Hilton will close for a year for a $15 million makeover. ESPN - da-da dum, da-da dum - reaffirmed its commitment to be a playmaker and housing developments, such as Sage Allen, are starting to percolate.

"Everybody now wants to buy a piece of property in Hartford," Colon says. "I think in three years or so, we're going to be OK."

Jerry Collins couldn't agree more. The owner of the Arch Street Tavern has a front-row seat, smack dab in the middle of all the construction. Twenty-five years ago, the former city school teacher, with an itch to be an entrepreneur, saw an abandoned brick carriage house and turned it into a popular tavern.

Arch Street Tavern is in it for the long haul.

"I can't go back to teaching school at my age," Collins, 53, says. "I grew up in Hartford, I taught in Hartford, I love Hartford. It's put me through the test a number of times, but it's put everybody to the test."

When you think about it, Hartford has always been a small city of big dreamers.

A onetime gang member grows up, earns his master's degree and becomes the city's first Latino mayor. A dirt-poor migrant from Puerto Rico fulfills a goal of becoming a small businessman, branding his business with the name of the city's most promising development.

A school teacher sees a dreary carriage house stained with pigeon poop and smells the making of a bustling business.

So, who's to say that a poverty-stricken city, one of the richest in the country near the turn of the 19th century, can't reinvent itself.

I think it can.

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