Hartford factory turned workspace for and by underserved communities wins $3.7 million federal pandemic rescue grant – Hartford Courant

HARTFORD – The transformation of a 19th-century factory in North Hartford is getting a boost from a $3.7 million federal grant announced Monday to establish a workforce training center, small business spaces and a branch of the Hartford Public Library.

John J. Thomas, assistant real estate project manager at Community Solutions, a local nonprofit, said the U.S. Department of Commerce’s COVID-19 relief money for Swift Factory will help mitigate the impact of years of discrimination against the black community of North Hartford.

Lenders have for years made capital available to white neighborhoods, excluding black residents, he said.

“Many in this state see funding like this as a kind of socialist handout, but we see it as deserved social justice,” Thomas said.

Steven M. Harris grew up near the factory that once made gold leaf used in buildings across the country and the dome of the Connecticut Capitol.

“I used to pass by this factory as a kid when people worked here. I also spent it when nobody worked here, when people were leaving my neighborhood,” he said at a press conference announcing the concession.

Harris, 75, a board member at the Hartford Public Library and retired city firefighter, credited Community Solutions and federal, state and local officials “for not giving up on us and getting another chance.”

US Senator Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said Hartford’s North End “has faced economic neglect and abandonment, resulting in deteriorating housing stock and diminishing employment opportunities.”

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“This federal grant to spur the growth of minority-owned businesses and train workers is a force multiplier for economic growth in this neighborhood, community and the Hartford area,” he said.

The imposing 80,000-square-foot factory, built in stages from 1887 to 1948 and closed in 2005, is home to primarily black and female-owned businesses such as a food business incubator and a school from kindergarten to first grade. It is undergoing a $34 million renovation.

Workforce development will be a key component of the library’s branch, which will occupy a cavernous space dominated by a long wall of windows facing the neighborhood’s homes. The branch will replace one on nearby Barbour Street and will be more than seven times larger at 15,000 square feet.

The renovated factory will help the community “double down efforts to support local entrepreneurs and job seekers in North Hartford,” said Mayor Luke Bronin.

US Representative John Larson, D-1, was critical of Republicans, reminding the public in election year comments that GOP members of Congress voted as a block against the COVID-19 rescue plan.

“Now, because all the stimulus checks were done with the American Rescue Plan and a funny thing in all those red districts, they’re sending out letters asking people if they got the check,” he said. “What’s wrong with Congress these days is that there’s not enough to unite.”

Stephen Singer can be contacted at ssinger@courant.com.

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