Suzanne M. Hopgood walks and talks in Hartford as she leaves the influential CRDA board.
HARTFORD – Pick an intersection in downtown Hartford, turn in almost any direction, and there’s bound to be a building impacted by the Capital Region Development Authority stewardship.
On a recent morning, Suzanne M. Hopgood stands at the corner of Ann Uccello and Allyn streets waiting for a reporter who wants to talk about her decision to step down after a decade as the influential quasi-public agency’s first board chair. .
Visible behind her are four apartment conversion projects totaling $45 million that have added 183 rentals, with the CRDA funding nearly $20 million in low-cost taxpayer-backed loans. But this morning, what captures Hopgood’s attention is the deafening sound of a jackhammer truck pounding into the back of the XL Center arena.
“We’ve been waiting for this for 10 years,” Hopgood said.
The construction – the addition of a sports betting site – is the first change in decades to this side of the arena. The project is also part of a much larger vision to make the aging XL viable in the long term and financially independent, a challenge that has been one of the most difficult of Hopgood’s tenure at CRDA.
But Hopgood, 73, has never shied away from the rough business terrain.
In 1979, she moved to Hartford to take a job with insurer Aetna, managing a billion-dollar real estate investment portfolio. In the mid-1980s, Hopgood formed The Hopgood Group, which focused on hotels and restaurants, its deep roots in the business. Growing up, his parents ran a historic 60-room hotel and 300-seat restaurant in his hometown of Littleton, NH.
Hopgood’s company evolved into a firm serving a wide range of businesses in legal and financial difficulty, with Hopgood sometimes acting as a consultant and at other times a member of the board of directors. At one point, Hopgood became president and CEO of a chain of family restaurants, whose shares traded on the New York Stock Exchange.
All the while, Hopgood has challenged boardrooms and male-dominated senior management. She developed a frank and direct style which earned her the reputation of a maverick.
In Hartford, Hopgood served as chairman of the city’s economic development commission in the early 2000s. This experience helped shape her vision for economic development. In the city’s north end, for example, she was shocked to see developers making money from projects that did nothing to improve residents’ lives, Hopgood said.
“I thought, ‘That’s not my idea of economic development. It’s the maintenance of poverty,” Hopgood said.
Since Hopgood was named president of CRDA in 2012, the agency has invested in nearly 2,900 rentals that have been added or are currently under construction in and around downtown Hartford. These apartments reinforce the residential population which is considered a key element in the revitalization of the city.
The CRDA has invested nearly $160 million in public loans and other investments, attracting about $650 million in private investments.
In the neighborhoods, the CRDA provided crucial funding for the renovation of the former Swift factory into an entrepreneurial space intended to provide jobs to residents of the surrounding northeast neighborhood.
The CRDA has also placed more emphasis on the communities surrounding Hartford, including East Hartford, Newington and Wethersfield.
Hopgood said she has spent most of her professional career working with companies facing serious challenges even to survival. She said she had now chosen to leave the presidency of CRDA because the agency had made significant progress, among other things, in converting long-vacant buildings into apartments.
“Now it’s a different city,” Hopgood said. “It’s time to let CRDA transition into someone with a different perspective who isn’t working with a city that’s like, ‘Whoa, do we have a lot of work to do?’, but a city that’s like, ‘ Let’s keep the momentum going.” That’s a different perspective.
Le Courant strolled downtown with Hopgood and talked about CRDA and where the city might be heading in the next few years. His comments have been edited for length and clarity.
Q: When you were appointed by the governor at the time. Dannel P. Malloy as president of the CRDA, what challenges has the city faced?
A: Definitely the accommodation, and the amount of space downtown. There was an inability to identify housing needs in the city because you can do occupancy studies, you can’t do pent-up demand studies. You can’t tell how many people called and there was nothing available.
The first study we did said: “You will never rent more than 10 apartments per month. And how many rented the first month to [the converted] 777 Main [tower]? Fifty. So much for this study.
You couldn’t do anything because you didn’t have the base. You couldn’t launch something like Pratt Street because at the time there was a lot of pressure to get people from the Farmington Valley to come to town. It was a big mistake.
We first had to involve the inhabitants of the city. And I think that’s pretty much what happened.
Q: How well has the city balanced the addition of market-priced apartments and “affordable” rentals?
A: Pretty good. Our goal is to be 20% affordable. There is a big difference between affordable housing and low-income housing. Hartford has, I mean, 40% of its stock low-income housing.
Affordable is a different measure. Affordable is a percentage of the region’s median income.
When one of the very first apartment projects – 777 Main – was starting, an article had just appeared in the New York newspaper that people who had affordable housing had a separate entrance and were not allowed to use the training area.
So that was the very first question to [developer] Bruce Becker. He told me there were no designated units. What a terrifying thought that was. I have no idea which is an affordable unit that is next to another that looks exactly the same and is market priced.
Q: What was the most difficult project?
I think the lack of understanding of what a basic economic driver is. Five years ago, we had 600,000 people at events at XL. You bring 600,000 people to downtown Hartford. Tell me it makes no difference to a city. Really and truly. It’s a huge economic driver. Talk to one of the downtown restaurants.
Different communities in the state see Hartford as a place that craves money and investment. They are therefore unwilling to invest in the city and there are objections from the legislature.
One of the things that’s left out of the XL is the contribution to state coffers – payroll taxes, sales taxes. This is excluded from the formula. It is enormous.
Q: The pandemic has dramatically changed the workplace, with many more employees dividing their time between home and the office. What challenges does this pose for downtown offices?
A: I think more office buildings will eventually be converted to apartments because offices will need less space. They are already giving back space, but this process had already started before the pandemic. It’s not a huge surprise and nothing that can’t be handled.
Biggest plus is the train to New York. If you have to be in New York one day a week, you can. You don’t have to live in New York. You can work virtually.
Q: Why does it always seem like Hartford is on the verge of revitalization and never quite gets there?
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A: Our expectations that there will be a solid line that one day Hartford will be. Where is it happening? It is a constant progression. It brings in people who are cared for, who have a good reason to live here, who want to live here.
Q: How do you see the city in five years?
A: All the pieces fit together. The ballpark is a huge plus. It brings people from all over. The XL Center. The convention center is going to be back up and running so people are coming to town for events. Xfinity and Infinity are huge games. Pratt Street is going to be completely different.
Bushnell South redevelopment [near the Capitol] going to make a big difference in this neighborhood, not having all these empty parking lots. So the groundwork has been laid, and it continues to get better and better and better.
And you get fewer people with the nonsense of “who would ever go to town?” For the most part, you get less, and the city acts more and more like a community.
Living in the city is becoming more and more attractive. I think there is too much to do on weekends. I can’t access everything. Who thought you would say that 20 years ago?
Kenneth R. Gosselin can be reached at [email protected]