Hartford is savoring the University of Connecticut's decision to move its West Hartford campus downtown, but it will take far more than the relocation of 2,100 students to make them an integral part of the city.
When UConn moved its suburban Stamford campus downtown in the late 1990s, it was a coup for city redevelopment efforts, but it took tremendous outreach to coax the students out of the former department store.
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"You've got to get them to leave the cocoon of the university," said Sandy Goldstein, president of the Stamford Downtown Special District. "You want them to walk to other places to have lunch, participate in outdoor events and become more a part of downtown."
In the first years after the campus relocated, it was too easy for students, many of them commuters, to attend classes, eat at the building's cafeteria, cross the street to the parking garage and then drive out of the city, Goldstein said.
"We sent them everything about what we did — outdoor concerts, discounted food opportunities at our restaurants," Goldstein said.
The payoff wasn't fast, Goldstein said: It took a good five years. But the result, more than a decade after the move, has been worth it.
"It's added a wonderful energy downtown," Goldstein said. "The best thing, don't put a cafeteria inside, it will encourage them to go outside."
UConn's move to downtown Hartford, announced Thursday, is expected within a year. The location has not been disclosed because negotiations are continuing.
The university hasn't said whether it will be one building or a combination of more than one. Some potential sites are the former Travelers on Constitution Plaza, the two-towered Connecticut River Plaza and One Talcott Plaza.
Erin Pollard, executive director of Business For Downtown Hartford, a merchant association representing about 100 , said the organization would encourage students to explore the downtown beyond the university, possibly through a sponsored gift card program that lets them try out area restaurants or stores.
"Of course, with tight class schedules, you're going to have people who stay on campus, but you're also going to have that spillover into the downtown," she said. "We want to reach out to that campus and let them know about the good stuff in Hartford."
Hartford has a growing roster of colleges downtown: Capital Community College in the old G. Fox & Co. building, and graduate business programs already run by UConn at Constitution Plaza and Rensselaer Polytechnic. Last year, the University of St. Joseph School of Pharmacy arrived and has since added more space.
Pollard said that students enrolled at all colleges in Hartford, including those outside downtown such as Trinity, are contributors to downtown businesses.
At JoJo's Coffee Roasting Co. on Pratt Street, barista Stephanie Mir said that the UConn campus would bring more traffic into the shop, which already is frequented by students from Capital Community College. She believes that UConn students would be more likely to patronize the city's pricier restaurants.
"They definitely will have more money to spend than people who go to the community colleges," Mir said.
The influx of more students downtown could provide just the pipeline that justifies the addition of more apartments, including studios and one-bedrooms.
"It's predominantly a commuter school," said Michael Zaleski, head of Hartford's Downtown Business Improvement District and a former student at UConn's West Hartford campus. "The apartments and residential buildings downtown will give students the opportunity to live in or around the school."
In Stamford, UConn says that students — mostly undergraduates — rent apartments near campus that are privately owned. The school is now strongly exploring the possibility of university-run housing in the city.
As of this past spring, the student population at the downtown Stamford campus had climbed to 1,823.
The benefits to Hartford can be far-reaching, even beyond the downtown night life and arts scene.
Oz Griebel, president and chief executive of the MetroHartford Alliance, a business lobbying group, said that going to classes in the city will help students get to know the city firsthand, as they become part of it.
"Students will have the opportunity to experience Hartford in a positive light that they may look for job opportunities here, if not right after graduation, then later," Griebel said. "It's a tight link to the capital city."