Yes, it’s important that new apartments are going up and businesses are growing and expanding in Hamden. But when Dale Kroop thinks about economic growth in his town, he’s looking beyond the next project and next company moving in.
“To me, workforce development is the most important economic development thing we can focus on,” said Kroop, who has just signed on for another two years as Hamden’s director of economic and neighborhood development. “Economic development is not just about helping businesses succeed. It’s about economic prosperity. That’s the transformational thinking.”
Transformation means developing the potential of Hamden’s residents, which is Kroop’s focus as he starts his 20th year as the town’s economic chief. Attracting and retaining a new generation of workers to offset the aging population are also crucial.
So while Kroop is happy to take a reporter on a tour of important projects around town — from a soon-to-open business incubator in the Newhall neighborhood to a cluster of new apartment buildings on Mather Street luring young renters from New Haven — he is most eager to discuss a less tangible priority for 2019.
“Everyone Gets a Job” is the title of a new workshop series Kroop has planned with employers to introduce Hamden kids around middle-school age to careers in the town’s major job sectors. First up is a session designed for kids and parents on healthcare slated for Jan. 24, then STEM in February, followed later in the year by manufacturing, vocational training, information technology, environmental science and entrepreneurship.
Although STEM and healthcare are important, Kroops added, the workers most in demand in Hamden right are now are welders, who can earn good salaries at manufacturers across Hamden. Aligning the needs of employers with the skills of the town’s workers is the aim. “It is critical for the future of Hamden’s economy,” Kroop said.
The shift in focus to people over projects comes as Kroop takes stock of his two decades in Hamden, working with the town’s nearly 3,000 businesses under five different mayors, both Republican and Democrat. For a decade or so after assuming the economic development post in Hamden in 1999, Kroop did “triage”: securing deals to fix up abandoned factories, cleaning up contaminated industrial sites and doing everything he could to maintain and support existing employers.
For the last decade, Kroop has helped kick-start revitalization efforts in the Newhall/Highwood neighborhood along the northern border with New Haven. He also helped revitalize and expand industrial areas off Sherman Avenue, State Street and Dixwell Avenue.
In the last year, new housing has sprouted along Mather Street, with a 393-unit, mostly market-rate complex rising in stages on the south side and a 77-unit complex for people with disabilities set to open soon on the north side.
Looking ahead, Kroop said he is hopeful that Connecticut’s new governor will support the “small-e” economy with more efforts to offset the cost of doing business in the state and cut back on burdensome regulations. He said he trusts that former Gov. Malloy’s “corporate welfare” policies that lavished incentives on ESPN, Alexion and other companies are gone for good: “When you give massive tax breaks just to keep someone from going to another state, it’s a zero-sum game.”
The Kroop Economic Development Tour
On a tour of Hamden’s key physical projects for 2019, Kroop seems most excited about a business incubator slated to open in Newhall in April. But he also proudly takes a reporter through the town’s humming manufacturing corridors off the main roads, industrial areas mostly at capacity and continuing to draw businesses from neighborhood towns and cities.
Dale Kroop’s biggest Hamden hits for 2019:
Hamden Business Incubator/Newhall Street
The first tenants are scheduled to move in by April at the Hamden Business Incubator, located in the former Newhall Community Center. On tap for the incubator: 20 fledgling businesses and support services for startups and job training in the economically challenged neighborhood. More than $11 million in grants and other funding have gone into a complete gut renovation of the 1917-vintage, 40,000-square-foot building, a complex job in progress since 2013. “I’m proud of this project but this is a killer,” said Kroop, citing construction delays and ongoing issues with security at the site.
The nearby renovation of the old Hamden Middle School is progressing slowly as the Mutual Housing Association of Southern Connecticut seeks additional funding to develop housing at the site.
Sherman Avenue Industrial Corridor
Many companies are growing and hiring skilled workers in the this cluster of more than 100 businesses on both sides of Sherman Avenue off Shephard, including Counter Weight Brewing, a rising star on the state’s craft beer scene. A major success story is Burt Process Equipment, an industrial equipment maker that employs 140 people and has expanded twice in recent years. “This is a very underreported part of our economy,” Kroop said, pointing out companies that have recently moved in from other towns and others that have expanded into larger buildings. “A lot of our incentives have been used for businesses to relocate here.”
Farricielli Tire Dump/State Street
A decades-old environmental nightmare near the North Haven border may soon pass into history — with a potential million-dollar payout for Hamden. The 110-acre parcel off State Street was once used as a dump for 20 million tires and was left badly contaminated, but the state is finally wrapping up a costly cleanup. Kroop said a final settlement may soon be reached with the owner, former State Rep. Joseph J. Farricielli, who pleaded guilty in 2003 to operating an illegal dump. Parts of the site are currently being leased and used to store gravel and semi trucks.
Quonset Hut and Porn Shop/State Street
A huge domed Quonset hut and retail strip next to Number One Fish Market that has sat rotting along State Street for a decade is finally being redeveloped under a town-brokered deal. The buildings that were home to Stereo Station, a discount porn shop and offices were razed in recent months and work has started to convert the Quonset hut into a sleek showroom for classic cars.
The site sat derelict due to family squabbles after the deaths of the owners, two brothers.
“It’s got a crazy history,” Kroop said. “You see this buildings, and they all have a story. We try to break down the stories and figure out how to solve them.”
Welton Street/State Street Industrial Area
Business is good for many of the manufacturers in this corridor tucked behind the DMV and state Department of Transportation buildings. Once a wasteland of shuttered factories and derelict housing due to sewer and other problems, Welton Street is now lined with companies after extensive improvements.
An ongoing success story is the Central Auto Auction, which trades thousands of cars weekly and sits on a former junkyard. Nearby manufacturers make ornamental railings, agricultural grinders and cables.
“This is the ‘small e’ economy, the blue collar economy, this is what it’s really all about,” Kroop said.
Porter and Chester/Dixwell Avenue
Porter and Chester Technical Institute is slated to open in February in the former Stop & Shop space in Putnam Plaza, a center that has seen retail churn since the supermarket closed in 2013. A new CVS will soon take the place strip of businesses including Little Caesars, T-Mobile and Jimmy’s Clothing & Footwear, which will relocate elsewhere in Hamden. Porter and Chester is moving from Branford and is the new location is expected to house 500 students and 70 teachers.
Kroop sees the transition in Putnam Plaza as part of a larger trend that will see fewer retail stores overall and smaller footprints for existing retailers. Strip-mall landlords are renting to more non-traditional tenants like schools, day-care centers and gyms.
Another non-retailer said to be coming soon to Putnam Plaza: a trampoline park similar to Wallingford’s popular Sky Zone.
“It’s part of the Amazon effect,” Kroop said. “Shopping centers are going to change a lot.”
Mather Street Apartments
Leasing is strong at the new Canal Crossing apartment complex on the south side of Mather Street near Dixwell, which opened its first phase last year and is 100 percent occupied. A total of seven buildings with 393 units are planned for the site, a long vacant parcel near Lake Whitney. Twenty percent of those units, mostly one-bedrooms, are set aside as affordable housing, and renters are being drawn from higher-priced complexes in New Haven like the Corsair, Kroop said.
Across the street, a new complex for those with disabilities at 415 Mather is mostly complete and set to open soon. More than 700 people applied for the 77 apartments in that complex, Kroop said.
Although the new apartments will bring in at least $1 million in new tax revenue for the town, Kroop seems equally proud of a sprawling U-Haul facility across from Canal Crossing that took the place of a contaminated factory that sat blighted and vacant for decades.
“This was a wasteland,” Kroop said, gesturing across the area. “This was transformational.”