Led by Drive for Stadium, Hartford Aims to Revitalize

THIS city, hit by rough times, is struggling to revive its economy.

The governor, state legislators, business leaders, and activists are trying to come up with solutions for the state capital, hurt by defense cutbacks, insurance-industry layoffs, and a dormant business district.

``One would have to say Hartford has suffered fairly significant pain since the state's economy started eroding and in some cases imploding back in early '89,'' says John Carson, president of Connecticut Policy and Economic Council, a nonprofit group.

Like other urban areas, Hartford is beset by problems like high unemployment and troubled schools. July's jobless rate was 10.3 percent, while the state's was 6.7 percent. Mr. Carson says studies have cited Connecticut cities Hartford, New Haven, and Bridgeport as among the nation's poorest.

Firm layoffs haven't helped. Insurance cutbacks, for example, have been severe in the home of the world's largest insurers. In two years, Aetna Life and Casualty Company has cut some 7,000 jobs at headquarters. Travelers Corporation announced last fall the loss of about 1,500 jobs.

Also hit: banking, construction, defense, and commercial aviation. Jet-engine builder Pratt & Whitney, for example, announced plans to cut 6,700 state jobs by the end of 1994.

Job losses like these have fueled urgency in economy-boosting initiatives. Several are under consideration, including a new sports complex, development retail projects, and a mass-marketing effort to promote the city.

THE most talked about proposal is Gov. Lowell Weicker's (Ind.) plan to build a 70,000-seat, $252 million football stadium for the Massachusetts-based New England Patriots. The plan hinges on negotiations with Francis Murray, the team's former part-owner, who said last June he would buy the team. Although owner James Orthwein wants to sell to a Bay State buyer, Connecticut leaders hope to lure the team here.

Business leaders are already salivating at the prospect of an economic boost from the stadium. ``I think Hartford is poised to receive the Patriots and hopefully move forward,'' says Anthony Caruso, executive director of the Hartford Downtown Council, an affiliate of the Greater Hartford Chamber of Commerce.

Nevertheless, the deal may be a long shot. Neither Bay State leaders nor National Football League officials will easily watch the team go south, notes Mike Seaver, president of Business for Downtown, a group of small-business owners. ``We can want it all we want, but we can't have it unless Massachusetts lets it go.''

In Massachusetts, Gov. William Weld (R) wants to build a $700 million megaplex in Boston as an alternative to the team's small Foxborough stadium.

Hartford, meanwhile, continues to seek ways to rejuvenate. The downtown shopping district is one focus area. Recent years have not been bright. The department store, G. Fox & Co., closed this year, leaving 600 to 700 workers jobless. Sage-Allen and Company closed in 1990. And long-time establishment Huntington's Book Stores also folded.

``It used to be very glamorous with the old-fashioned department stores,'' says Corey Brunson, researcher for Citizens' Research Education Network, a private group. ``[Now] there is a lot of vacant retail space.''

But progress has been made. The Hartford Whalers, the state's only franchised sports team, renewed a 20-year lease to use the Hartford Civic Center. City officials were concerned about losing the team.

In November, the Hartford Hellcats, a Continental Basketball Association franchise, will begin its first season. The team is expected to draw 150,000 people yearly. And in downtown Hartford, a new T.J. Maxx store is planning to expand.

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