This blog post originally appeared here.
When I took office at 26 years old in November 2013 as New Britain, Connecticut’s 40th—and youngest mayor—I was shocked by what I soon learned about the city where I was born and raised and so dearly loved: we were $30 million in debt and staring a state bankruptcy right in the face. Blighted buildings seemed to dominate every neighborhood. Economic development was sparse. Community pride was low. We were just another New England industrial town turned ragged and rusty. But over the last three years, we’ve completely changed course and are now viewed as an example of a former industrial city making of a successful comeback.
New Britain is in the center of Connecticut and is commonly known as the “Hardware City” due to our proud industrial past. The company now known as Stanley Black and Decker, for example, was established in New Britain in 1843 by Frederick T. Stanley—our city’s first Mayor—and they are still headquartered here.
Today, we have a rainy day fund that’s gone from zero to north of $10 million. We’ve reduced spending by more than $15 million by eliminating vacant positions and produced budgets that were honest and structurally balanced. We have restructured more than $45 million in debt and rescinded bonding projects that were not part of our strategic priorities. We are the first city in Connecticut to successfully re-negotiate union contracts to restructure health insurance.
Because of those tough decisions, our Standard and Poor’s credit rating has gone up by 4 notches to A+, as investors see we are serious and capable of fulfilling our financial obligations.
We were also forced to swallow some bitter medicine and raise taxes in order to remain solvent, but it has helped to stabilize our city and give us a strong financial foundation from which we have since flourished. Earlier this year, New Britain was featured on the front page of the “Bond Buyer,” the nation’s premier municipal financial newspaper, as a city making tough financial decision for the betterment of the community. That kind of stability sends a clear message to developers.
I’ve long said that developers want to invest in cities that are investing in themselves. We’re taking care of our treasured parks, renovating our schools, and improving our infrastructure. We’re also becoming a smarter city: we recently installed our first fuel cell located at our high school—one of the largest in the state. It will supply all of the facilities electrical and some heating needs.
We are modernizing our traffic signals so they can be adjusted in real time. This is in addition to previous smart city projects like solar arrays on our schools and at our water treatment plant, a half dozen electrical vehicle charging stations around the city and a GPS tracking system for our Public Works snow crews. These projects are making our government more efficient, more responsive to our residents, and leading to substantial savings to taxpayers.
Over the next five years, more than $100 million in private investments will take root in our city. These projects largely involve adaptively reusing vacant or underutilized buildings, such as the 200,000-plus square foot former Landers, Frary, and Clark factory, and turning it into 160 housing units for a new generation of New Britain residents.
The former site of our police department has been razed and in its place will go a $58 million mixed-use development featuring 168 apartments, retail and office space, and more. This development will be the catalyst for making downtown New Britain come alive once again. It is part of a major transportation oriented development project spurred by the completion of New England’s only bus rapid transit system known as CTfastrak.
Thanks to the opening of CTfastrak in March of 2015, we’ve seen an increase in economic and transit oriented development activity along this busway that connects us to the state’s capital: Hartford. Transit orientated development is breathing new life into our city: boosting real estate values and making New Britain a more desirable place to work and live.
This project is just a short walk or bike ride from our downtown, which was completely renovated over the last year under our Complete Streets Master Plan to make it more welcoming to pedestrians and cyclists. Our Central Park, once an uninviting hangout is now a thriving city center with a weekly farmer’s market, music concerts, food trucks, and community events. How have we done it you might ask?
We’ve been aggressive in obtaining funding from public and private partnerships to help bring these projects to fruition. From brownfield funding through the State Department of Economic and Community Development to grants from other stakeholders, we’ve been creative in partnering with outside institutions to seek funding wherever it’s available.
A new blight task force team from our Health and Building Department has been combatting blight in our neighborhoods, which is leading to a boost in community morale and making our city more attractive to new home owners and developers. This has led to a boost in our Grand List, which has grown steadily over the last few years thanks to the addition of more than 30 new businesses, such as Costco, aerospace manufacturer Polamer Precision, and many others.
I’m proud to be Mayor of New Britain—which by the way is one of only 10 cities in the United States named a 2016 “All America City” by the National Civic League (Hartford Courant). Everything we have accomplished has been done with a team of leaders. I’ve surrounded myself with colleagues and members of the Common Council who all share a collective desire to build a better New Britain. We are a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans 7-1, yet Republicans in 2015 due to our leadership took a supermajority on our Common Council. That speaks volumes. We operate with transparency, never spend more than we can afford, and constantly seek new opportunities for innovation and efficiency. We care more about progress, rather than politics (several members of the Common who caucus with me are either Democrats or unaffiliated voters.)
Here in New Britain, we have done a lot of heavy lifting to make sure our city can continue on the right path. I am proud to say we have achieved success. However, that doesn’t mean we will stop raising the bar. We still have a lot of work to do. Prosperity is around the corner – but it will take patience and solid conservative leadership to get there. Our prudential financial decisions have helped our city tremendously. If other Republican leaders across the country followed suit, many other communities would see the successes that New Britain has become known for.
Erin E. Stewart
Mayor of New Britain, CT