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After nearly 2 years of COVID hardships, Hartford is open for business once again

After the pandemic closed many businesses in the downtown area, there is now a sense of hope and officials say it's a time of opportunity too.

HARTFORD, Conn. — A walk through downtown Hartford reveals the grim reality of a post-COVID world. Empty storefronts where businesses once were. 

"I've been in retail in this downtown with my husband for 44 years and I've never seen it this bad," said Jody Morneault, owner of the clothing store, Morneault's Stackpole Moore Tryon. "Each day that goes by there's another business that closes."

Her store sits at the corner of Pratt and Trumbull streets in the heart of downtown. From there, she has watched the pandemic transform the bustling area into merely the shell of what it was. 

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"It's very depressing because most of the people that have closed have been my longtime friends," Morneault said. "For the people that didn't make it, for a long time I would walk around crying."

Hartford's Chamber of Commerce says many businesses have closed their doors since the pandemic began. One factor is the transition to work from home. The tens of thousands of employees that used to come into the city stopped coming in, and businesses felt that impact. 

"When the one industry decides not to come back and I can understand why, they have to protect their employees, but there was no safety net put in for small businesses," Morneault said.

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But now there is a sense of hope. COVID cases continue on a downward trend, mandates are being dropped, and many of those big companies are on track to bring their workers back into the office. 

It's why the city is tackling the current situation from a positive point of view. These empty buildings are a chance for new businesses and new growth. 

"This is our capital city, this is a great place to be and we have a rare opportunity to come out of COVID in a strong position to make Hartford the urban core of the region," said Julio Concepcion, executive director, of the Hartford Chamber of Commerce.

That's where the HartLift program comes in. Offering property owners up to a $150,000 grant, giving them the funds to incentivize small businesses, to fill their empty spots. 

"We want to create that extra incentive to make sure that they do it soon, that they do it in Hartford and that they do it in a way that brings vacant spaces back to life," said Mayor Luke Bronin.

There's already been an interest. The first 10 recipients of the grant have been chosen. Including Corner Three, which will transform what’s currently an empty space into a new sports bar that will open on Pratt Street, across from the XL Center.  

It's exactly what officials are hoping to see. 

"We want to see businesses open in these buildings as quickly as possible and what's great is that the businesses are lining up to do that," Bronin said.

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However, it's just one piece of the puzzle to make Hartford whole again. 

"We have to do more. It's not enough just to give money out there's got to be a collective ecosystem of support for these businesses. Not just when they come in, but to thrive afterwards. We want these businesses not to just be here for a couple of years, we want them to call Hartford home for a long time," Concepcion said.

That means focusing on other strengths too. Promoting the arts and culture, the sports teams and venues, and the residential growth Hartford has seen in recent years. 

In Hartford, you’ll pay an average rent of $1,054 for a one-bedroom apartment according to RentData.org. Compared to other nearby cities like Boston, where it’s $1,826 and in New York, $1,778. 

"Our population in the downtown neighborhood has grown incredibly so it's really tapping into them as well to make sure that they know this is their community, this is their neighborhood. Come frequent it, spend money," Concepcion said.

Activating the city in more ways than one to give the heart of Connecticut its beat back. 

"I think it's beautiful," said Morneault. "I think it's a jewel," she said. 

Gaby Molina is a reporter and anchor at FOX61 News. She can be reached at gmolina@fox61.com. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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