By Rebecca Lurye The Hartford Courant
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) John Thomas, engagement coordinator for Community Solutions, the nonprofit that's redeveloping the "Swift factory" says the redevelopment project can help prevent the "flight of successful black businesses" from the North End, restoring positive examples of what people can build in their own neighborhoods."
The Hartford Courant
Paying no mind to the gravel mounds and stacks of bricks, Rosa Bailey followed along as the real estate manager gestured around the old M. Swift & Sons factory, envisioning the space she could rent in what was once the centerpiece of Northeast Hartford.
Bailey, who grew up near the old gold leafing factory on Love Lane, thought of the youth group she runs for budding entrepreneurs, and the benefits of encouraging their talent within their own community. And she listened intently as Tarek Raslan, of Community Solutions, described the kitchen facilities being designed inside the long-vacant industrial complex, which will open in March as a food business hub after a decade of planning.
The men in her family all cook, she said during a recent tour of the new Swift Factory, which is expected to create about 150 permanent jobs. Community Solutions, the nonprofit that's redeveloping the property, began holding open houses in June, targeting people and businesses that are local to the neighborhood.
"This is like a breath of fresh air," said Bailey, who now lives in Bloomfield. "This is going to spark something in people who have been dreaming for years about doing something,"
Raslan pointed out the various pieces of the $34 million redevelopment as part of a July 25 open house, encouraging his group of potential tenants to picture the potential behind the brick walls and factory doors, still closed for construction.
The visitors -- a mix of North End locals, residents of other Hartford neighborhoods and suburbanites -- laughed when Raslan told them how the factory floor held so much gold dust when the company shut down in 2005 that the Swift family was able to pay off an outstanding property tax bill.
"For those looking to strike gold in this place, trust me, every floorboard's been turned over already," he said.
Residents are hoping for something nearly as improbable -- for the food business hub to breathe life back into their economically depressed neighborhood, home to few businesses beyond convenience and package stores and take-out restaurants.
"We're doing this in a neighborhood whose history is disinvestment, lack of access to resources," said John Thomas, engagement coordinator for Community Solutions. "We see that this is an opportunity to recreate the economic engine that the factories of Hartford once served as in the neighborhoods."
Originally scheduled to open by the end of this year, the Swift Factory is now planning to welcome tenants in March and April, according to Raslan, the real estate project manager. One of the anchor companies, Bear's Smokehouse BBQ, will move in by the end of the year, he said.
The anchor tenants will fill about 75 percent of the factory, with Bear's occupying 13,700 square feet for a catering kitchen and barbecue sauce operation, and Freshbox Farms using 35,000 square feet for an indoor hydroponic farm growing leafy greens for local supermarkets.
There will also be about 10,000 square feet of shared office space -- both co-working desks and 18 private studio offices; nine private kitchens; a 4,000-square-foot community health hub in one of the old Swift family residences, to address health gaps among Northeast Hartford residents; and a venue for community meetings and classes in a second family home, built alongside the factory in 1887.
Residents like Brenda Turner, who grew up in the North End and now lives in Windsor, say they can picture the Swift factory standing at the center of a bustling local economy, like it did decades ago.
There were beauty salons and barbershops, a bakery, a mom-and-pop store and contractors that helped raise the Frank T. Simpson Waverly School building in 1968. There was a dance studio and a shoe repair shop, and an arcade where Gregory Covington, 54, learned to play pool with his dad's motorcycle club, the Soul Seekers.
They remember when the machinery was still churning, a smell like nail polish hung in the air and buses delivered a mostly male, white workforce to the factory doors each day.
"Now it's like bodega and another bodega, and up the street, another bodega," Covington said.
The 1960s brought the last truly good years for the factory, including a contract to provide the gold used in a restoration of the state Capitol dome. But the business held on for three more decades until it closed in 2005 with the death of the founder's grandson.
"As young adults, we weren't really supposed to go over there," Turner said of the industrial complex, which sits at what's known as Five Corners, the intersection of Love Lane and Garden and Westland streets. "But still, to walk past, to see the energy, it was huge. And to see it rebuilt and I'm taking part in this era? It's huge."
The Swift factory can help prevent the "flight of successful black businesses" from the North End, restoring positive examples of what people can build in their own neighborhoods, Thomas said.
Bailey visited Swift to look at classroom space for her group, Treasure Box, but listened intently to information about the layout of the kitchen facilities and their shared cooler, freezer, office and packaging space.
Howard Shafer, who lives in the downtown south area of Hartford, came to see whether any spaces were right for his barbecue catering company, The Whole Hog.
John Manselle-Young, a musician who goes by Tang Sauce, visited the open house to scope out a space for woodworking.
Manselle-Young, who lives downtown, has the equipment he needs but no shop to grow into.
And Nancy Frederick, who lives in the North End, is still cooking up a plan for a food retail business.
The Swift family gifted the 65,000-square-foot factory to Community Solutions in 2010, starting the nonprofit's involvement in the North End.
Community Solutions, formerly Common Ground, originally envisioned using the site for job-training. The nonprofit saw a good model in Billings Forge, an area of Frog Hollow that's been revived by a farmers' market, farm-to-table restaurant, teaching kitchen and income-restricted apartments.
The idea has been refined over the past nine years, during which Community Solutions secured $33.9 million in grants and funding to carry out the project.
Market rates for desks, offices and kitchens will be released in the coming weeks, but Community Solutions plans to offer better pricing to North End locals, Hartford residents and businesses that align with the nonprofit's mission of promoting health, learning, creativity and community.
Leases for those groups will be negotiated on a case-by-case basis, Raslan said, adding that several people are ready to sign. "We're making a very strong effort in terms of our outreach to focus on those organizations, and that mixture of tenants we're looking for will be core to the identity of the campus," he said.
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