West Hartford Director of Community Services Rob Rowlson thinks this is "going to be a good year," with a town budget that residents can live with and housing prices on the upswing.
Rowlson spoke Thursday for the sixteenth time to a sell-out crowd at the West Hartford Chamber of Commerce Economic Update luncheon at the University of Hartford, providing a detailed overview of business news affecting every neighborhood in town.
He pointed to a dramatic increase in number of business permits issued in the past year – more than 5,000 as compared to approximately 3,000 in a typical year – as just one indicator of an improving economy and people willing to invest in their property as a sign that people "believe in the town."
Rowlson said the national recognition West Hartford has already received from Kiplingers Personal Finance, CNN Money, Travel & Leisure, and others is because of the many things that make West Hartford a great community. More recognition appears to be on the way as well. "We are on the cusp of being notified that we could receive a really big award ... I can tell you that we're finalists, and it's going to be really spectacular," Rowlson hinted, although he is not yet able to disclose any further details.
Rowlson started his neighborhood tour with Elmwood, which he said "has really made its way out of the wilderness." The neighborhood had a vacancy rate in excess of 50 percent just 10 years ago, and now that rate has dropped to less than 5 percent.
"Today [Elmwood] is so successful that you can't find places to put people," Rowlson said.
A solar field to be built on a site near the Newington line where environmental concerns discourage other development, Legrand/Wiremold's installation of a fuel cell, and energy saving measures taken such as gradually dimming the street lights on New Britain Ave. are indicators that West Hartford is riding the "wave of the future."
Other Elmwood highlights included the future addition to Chatfield Senior Living and Phase 2 of the Quaker Green condominium project – a development which Rowlson said "catalysted the Elmwood resurgence."
"If you don't have a Pepe's you haven't arrived," said Rowlson of the imminent arrival of the iconic New Haven Pizzeria on New Britain Ave. "I predict that this sets off a new firestorm in Elmwood," he said.
Sliders is also opening soon in the Stop & Shop plaza, and Yogurt City recently opened there. AAA had a ribbon cutting in late January for its new fleet garage, which serves as the home base for the company's Emergency Road Service employees.
And although Rowlson said the Home Design District continues to enjoy "burgeoning growth," its not all good news for the New Park corridor where he said mentioning the busway project "spoiled my lunch."
Park Road highlights mentioned by Rowlson include a forthcoming sale of the Sisters of St. Joseph property at the corner of Park and Prospect. Three offers are currently being considered – for housing, housing plus retail, and a school – and Rowlson hopes to see that property transformed into housing for young professionals.
"If I can bring in 300 more young professionals ... Park Road will be transformed forever." Rowlson said the area will become "like West Hartford Center – just long."
Meet Me on Park, a new initiative by the Park Road businesses to encourage collaboration, is also a terrific effort, Rowlson said.
"We call this the annual store exchange conversation," Rowlson said when he moved on to a discussion of West Hartford Center. Thirty5 Bar & Grille is now up and running after a renovation delayed by a fire, Jos. A. Bank is undergoing a "massive interior redecorating and reinvention," Penzey's is expanding, Comina is closing and will be replaced by Village Vitality, and JT Ghamo's former space will soon be home to Sev Shak.
"It's all about food in this town," Rowlson said as he continued through the Center, mentioning Sweet Frog which is already thriving and two tenants vying for the former BGR space on Farmington Ave.
He said he is pleased to welcome Rockville Bank to a beautifully renovated building on LaSalle Rd. which still shares space with the U.S. Post Office branch. Another rebuilding is on the horizon for the Center with a planned proposal for property at 15-17 North Main St. (northwest corner of Brace Rd.) owned by Chris Gent, and the Masonic Hall on South Main St. is currently being marketed and has some interested buyers, Rowlson said.
Store turnover in Blue Back Square "happens every single year," Rowlson said. "When we conjured this thing up everybody was kicking me in the shins and telling me what a crappy idea it was ... ruining the town." Now Rowlson said office space and condiminiums are at 100 percent occupancy and retail is 91 percent leased and predicted to be full by Christmas.
Spin, Bella Bridesmaid, Vinted, and GNC are some of the new additions to Blue Back that Rowlson highlighted.
Bishops Corner has experienced "fantastic, fantastic, fantastic redevelopment," said Rowlson. The Edens development at the southwest corner has added Noodles & Company, Massage Envy, Maximum Beverage, TD Bank, and Walmart Neighborhood Market in the past year, Rowlson said. Blue Plate Kitchen, a new restaurant planned by the owner of City Steam Brewery, recently announced plans to open later this year.
Diagonally across the street, the backside of Crossroads Plaza is "a shambles," Rowlson said, although he praised Mooyah's involvement in the community and with the Chamber.
"For now we have them here," said Rowlson about the UConn Greater Hartford Campus which announced last fall that it plans to relocate to Hartford. There have been many potential locations bandied about, but no firm plans have been made. "I think an office campus is a great use for the property," Rowlson said, indicating that the number of cars coming and going throughout the day would not be much different than it currently is.
The biggest surprise of the day came at the end of the luncheon, when Rowlson announced that he would be retiring in July.