Community Solutions Provides New Opportunities in Hartford
By MetroHartford Alliance Content Manager Nan Price
Community Solutions has been collaborating with the community to revitalize the Swift Factory building with the goal of stimulating job growth, economic development, and community health in Hartford’s North East neighborhood.
The federally funded $35 million redevelopment project, which is an initiative of the North Hartford Promise Zone, is helping rebuild the neighborhood and creating a thriving community hub that includes an incubator and rental space for chefs/restaurateurs, a new space for entrepreneurs and small business owners, and, through a collaboration with the Hartford Chamber of Commerce and HEDCO Inc., part of the future vision also includes creating a financial literacy center.
A Nontraditional Approach
Community Solutions doesn’t follow the traditional model of a developer, Assistant Program Manager Real Estate John J. Thomas is quick to point out. “The core of our existence is providing spaces for businesses within the community, right here in the community—reinvesting in this community in a way that organically grows to provide opportunities for capacity building,” he explains.
“We’re a nonprofit entity, so it’s not our goal to continue to make money to the point where we can go somewhere else and do this again,” adds John. “This economic model for this project doesn’t really make sense to traditional investors and developers.”
Community Solutions for Entrepreneurs
Adding the space for entrepreneurial growth expands the Swift Factory’s reach.
“I see this dynamic as a solution to much more than just the physical or structural changes that need to be made. People can internalize exactly what’s going on here and see people working for themselves and providing that example,” says John.
“Our tenants are highly screened—it’s not like we’re giving people an easy way in, but we provide a soft landing here for businesses that have struggled probably most of the time they’ve been in existence,” he adds. “That example of entrepreneurship is something new we can provide. In many cases, people would rather work for themselves—that’s much more empowering. And, people can band together and pool their capital and access resources in ways they couldn’t on their own.”
In addition, the organization will help entrepreneurs and small business owners by providing access to resources they may not otherwise have known were available.
For example, Community Solutions can apply for grants for entrepreneurs in the nonprofit realm who may need help getting into space at the Swift Factory. “There’s a social impact lens to our work. Our social impact goals are just as important as our financial goals here on the site,” emphasizes John.
“We see an opportunity to provide spaces for businesses that would enable them to come in as a startup and then create the relationship and partnerships to help them scale up,” he explains. “We’ve also identified resources we can use to engage our potential tenants and help them scale.”
Those resources include the neighborhood financial literacy center Community Solutions is building in collaboration with the Hartford Chamber of Commerce and HEDCO. “We’re seeking additional funding to bring in operators who could provide financial literacy and could connect entrepreneurs to resources, capital, and information.”
Additional Employment Opportunities
As part of the revitalization project, Community Solutions hires community-based contractors. “Getting them to work as well will have a great impact on the neighborhood and potentially help them in the future too, to access good jobs at a higher capacity than they can now,” says John.
“It’s not about just the economic development opportunities we’ve created here. We’ve always been about providing employment opportunities,” he emphasizes. “During the construction phases, we adopted the city’s employment goals. We met those goals and then some—we had an 11% neighborhood participation rate in our construction hours. So, we actually had people who live right across the street from the Swift Factory working here.”
Investing in The Neighborhood
In January 2020, Community Solutions began acquiring and renovating housing units that will become part of the North Hartford Community Land Trust (NHCLT). The goal is to obtain and renovate 100 units over the next three years and provide permanently affordable, high-quality housing for a significant portion of North Hartford residents.
“The Swift Factory used to be the center of blight in this neighborhood. Now we don’t want it to be surrounded by blight,” says John. “We’re working on the solutions to the problem. Where we had disinvestment, we have reinvestment—and it’s to the tune of $35 million.”
He adds, “We’re committed to this neighborhood and ensuring the NHCLT works to stabilize the housing in a neighborhood. It doesn’t make sense to do a $35 development on an area surrounded by blight.”