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State will go as far as its cities

December 16, 2018

Economically speaking, Connecticut’s city problem is simple: We don’t have any.

That’s not a knock on Bridgeport or New Haven, but when you’re competing with the likes of Boston or Atlanta, or especially the place people just call The City, 20 square miles and 150,000 people won’t get you far.

This was on display most famously when the state lost the General Electric headquarters a few years back and many people — politicians, mostly — wanted to blame it on taxes. That didn’t make much sense since the company moved to Massachusetts and not South Carolina, but it fit the story some people were trying to tell of a tax-happy state driving business away.

But GE and its CEO at the time were perfectly clear about what they wanted — people. Empty fields in Fairfield are no substitute for a bustling, vibrant urban center.

Three years later, it turns out GE wasn’t quite the prize it looked like. But the story of its departure matters for Connecticut. Nationwide, the trend is that economic growth is happening in cities, and Connecticut is a state full of suburbs. Office parks served the state well in the ’80s, at a time when people were scared of cities and companies flocked to the countryside.

Today, those office parks are as likely to be converted into housing, or, in the case of GE, a university campus. Some are turning into trampoline parks.

Connecticut has a long history of leaving its cities to deal with problems that suburbs don’t want to face, problems that exist in every community but are left to the cities to host services that help people in need.

Even with all that, local cities have come a long way. Bridgeport, No. 1 in population here but only fifth in New England, is light years ahead of where it was 20 years ago, with a downtown that offers some night spots along with high demand for new residential units whenever they become available. Its downtown is geographically limited, but the conversion from abandoned to up and coming is legitimate.

New Haven, our second-largest city, is well ahead of Bridgeport in terms of entertainment and livability, but it wasn’t always that way. I distinctly remember a college guide in the days when I was choosing schools saying something to the effect of, “If you have a chance to go to Yale you should do it, but New Haven is as good a reason as any to choose someplace else.”

No one is saying that these days.

Downstate, Stamford is a legitimate success, and will likely take over the top spot in population soon. Norwalk has carved out a niche for people priced out of Stamford who still want some of its convenience to New York, and Danbury does well despite a downtown renewal plan that’s not as far along as many there might have hoped.

But all those gains have a limit. Our largest cities have the same number of people as a few square blocks in Brooklyn. We don’t have a Boston to compete for the likes of GE and we never will, not unless the state starts allowing cities to annex their richer neighbors. That would make all kinds of sense, but don’t expect our suburban-dominated Legislature to ever touch that one.

So we need to work with what we’ve got. That means continuing to focus state attention on New Haven and Stamford, as well as Bridgeport and Hartford, as a way of turning them into places where more people want to move and companies want to go.

It goes beyond economics and into quality of life. Right now, people who have a yen for the suburban lifestyle have all sorts of choices. For people who’d prefer a car-free life and walk most places, the state doesn’t offer much.

Connecticut for a long time featured all the attributes people don’t like about cities and none of the things they like. That’s starting to change. For the sake of the state’s future, it needs to happen faster.

hbailey@hearstmediact.com

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