Leaders, Students Strategize: How to Make Hartford A Hopping College Town

Hartford has 11 colleges and universities downtown or nearby — including the newly opened UConn Hartford — but that alone doesn’t make the city a college town.

“A lot of towns would be jealous to have this many colleges,” said Richard Sugarman, who is president of Hartford Promise, but he said the schools don’t yet have the kind of presence that seeps into the community and transforms it.

 “It’s a mutual thing where the community feels connected and informed and engaged by the college,” Sugarman said, “and the college feels connected, informed and engaged by the community.”

So a team of city, business, education and student leaders, including Sugarman, have set about coming up with strategies that will imbue the city with the energy, creativity and fun that is evident in college towns.

At a recent meeting the group, which is led by the Hartford Consortium for Higher Education, came up with a range of ideas from turning Front Street into a pedestrian mall to having an orientation for all Hartford area college freshmen at Dunkin’ Donuts Park, to having restaurants offer meals at student-friendly prices.

Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin told the group that of all initiatives that have the potential to transform Hartford, he believes turning Hartford into a college town might be the most important.

“There is no reason we shouldn’t be considered a college town,” Bronin said, “but we suffer a little bit on a small level from the same thing we suffer from on a big level in the state, which is that we scatter our assets.

 “And so our challenge is to figure out how to make this town a college town despite the fact that we’ve got a number of our institutions a little bit on the outskirts or a little bit enclosed within their gates and what’s exciting is that I think there is the will there now.”

So what will bring students downtown from the outlying ‘burbs?

“For college students, our main goal is finding food,” Courtney Majcher, a West Hartford’s University of St. Joseph student told the group. “When I go out, I’m looking for food. I want something different, I want something good.”

Majcher said that when she and her friends came to the all-college “Party on Pratt” sponsored by the consortium in September, they discovered that Vaughan’s Public House one of the pubs “had some really good chicken tenders and a lot of us went there for dinner.”

Students are very price-sensitive, Majcher said, and will seek out restaurants offering discounts or deals. A student discount card for restaurants, businesses, arts groups and sporting events was a key suggestion discussed, as well as a shuttle to get students in from outlying campuses and ferry them around the city.

“Transportation is a key,”Majcher noted. “I don’t want to go park in a parking garage because they cost me extra money for hours on end.”

Janice Castle, director of community engagement, suggested the idea of a first-year student gathering at the Yard Goats ballpark to tell them about the highlights of Hartford and to let the students connect across campuses. If they make friends on other campuses, she said, they are more likely to cross town and explore restaurants in the area and small businesses.

Henry Chavez, a senior at Trinity College told the group that he is from Boston — that college mecca — and he thinks a strong college town enables connections across campuses.

 “It’s a setting where you can walk into the downtown area, walk into a coffee shop and you’re going to see students from a variety of different schools,” Chavez said. He’d also like to see something else he’s noted in Boston: collaboration on projects among students from different colleges.

“Friends who go to school at BC are doing a project with students from another institution,” Chavez said. “A lot of peer to peer academic work.”

Majcher said she and her friends also enjoy Boston because it’s “easy and cheap to get around” and there is so much to do within easy walking distance.

Developing a central directory for internships for college students and possibly securing funding for students who can’t afford a volunteer internship was another idea that came up. Several also suggested career days when local business people talked to students about their jobs.

Abi Rodriguez, a student from Capital Community College, said it’s important to make such events continuous and ongoing. It shouldn’t be, he said, “Oh welcome to this, see you never.”

The group also brainstormed about ways to come up with cool spaces downtown, so students will want to hang out. Sugarman said that’s how the idea of turning Front Street into a pedestrian mall came up.

“Part of being a college town is that there is this sense of a ‘college happening,’ a ‘college scene,’ ” Sugarman said “For pretty much any colleges there’s a little scene. Boston is a big scene. We just don’t have that except now with UConn, we’re beginning to create that.”

One way to expand that scene, Sugarman said, might be getting rid of the cars on Front Street, installing kiosks and creating a pathway — perhaps even painting it red so it is easily identified or lighting it in a special way — up Front Street, past the plaza behind the Wadsworth with the “Stegosaurus” sculpture, to UConn Hartford and all the way to Bushnell Park.

Sugarman and others envisioned lots of food trucks in the area and a permanent Frisbee or soccer field at Bushnell park.

“We could use the whole area to create college scenes,” Sugarman said where people congregate and activity is always underway. “The greatest indication of a scene or happening is that it’s not necessary to go there to do anything. You just go there to be there.”

The group, which is just in its beginnings, hopes to come up with a preliminary plan over the next 90 days.

This article, written by Kathleen Megan, appeared in The Hartford Courant newspaper on November 19, 2017.  The November 9 conference was sponsored by the Center for Higher Education Retention Excellence (CHERE) and the Hartford Consortium for Higher Education (HCHE) and held at the Hartford Public Library in downtown Hartford.