A recommendation to completely restructure the City's Merchant
Coordinator Program is drawing protest from a coalition of local
Merchant Associations. The recommendation, which would replace
Hartford's 13 Merchant Coordinators with five "Neighborhood
Business Development Specialists," is part of an overall
plan to restructure the City's economic development system. The
plan was issued in June by the Capitol Region Growth Council,
which has been contracted by the City of Hartford to restructure
its economic development function.
In a letter to City officials dated July 10, representatives
from 11 of the Merchant Associations said they want a chance
to present their argument for retention of the program to City
Council in an open public forum.
Merchant Coordinators are paid approximately $30,000 a year,
which they receive from their respective Merchant Associations.
The Associations in turn receive City funding to finance the
Coordinator program. The Merchant Coordinators provide a variety
of services, such as technical assistance, marketing campaigns,
community liaison and help in obtaining loans.
The Neighborhood Business Specialists recommended by the Growth
Council would receive an annual salary of approximately $45,000
said Bob Santy, Vice President of the Growth Council, and would
have broader responsibilities and be more accountable than the
current Merchant Coordinators. Santy is also recommending that
the loan programs offered by the various merchant associations
should be made more uniform.
Santy added that, while the exact territories the Neighborhood
Business Specialists would serve has yet to be determined, right
now he suggesting that the North End, West End, South End, Park
Street and Downtown areas each have their own specialist.
Marjorie Morrissey, Merchant Coordinator for Business for Downtown
Hartford, said that while the Merchant Coordinator Program does
have room for improvement, the changes recommended in the Growth
Council report are too drastic.
Morrissey said the Merchant Coordinators and the Business Associations
they serve want to play an active role in reorganizing Hartford's
economic development system. "We feel very strongly that
we can be a part of the solution and we have the hands-on knowledge
to do it. We are the eyes and ears on the street in terms of
reporting the ideas and needs of small businesses to city hall,"
Santy responded to the reservations expressed by the Merchant
Associations with a letter of his own to City Manager Saundra
Kee Borges on July 16. In it, Santy agreed that the Merchant
Coordinators have benefitted Hartford businesses but added, "The
question is: are these coordinators performing functions of importance
and interest to the City since the City is providing the financial
resources. Our examination indicates that there is not a good
connection between the City's financial expenditure and whether
the City benefits from that expenditure. Coordinators may perform
important roles, more appropriately funded by the Associations
Santy said that if the City is funding the Merchant Coordinator
program then the Coordinators should primarily be responsible
to the City, not the Merchant Associations. He added that the
Merchant Associations do not represent the city's entire business
community. Retail establishments make up the bulk of the associations'
membership and manufacturing companies are under-represented,
he said. The new Neighborhood Business Development Specialists
would be responsible for all businesses within their given districts,
Fran Reale, Merchant Coordinator for the Wethersfield Avenue
Merchants Association, agreed that Santy and the Growth Council
have raised some valid questions about the Merchant Coordinators
program but, like Morrissey, she feels that much more discussion
is needed on the subject before any final decisions are made.
A great deal depends on how the City ultimately decides to restructure
its Department of Economic Development, she said.
Douglas Andrews, President of the Upper Albany Merchants Association,
also said Santy has raised "some very good, very valid"
questions. He said five Neighborhood Business Specialists might
be enough to handle the entire city, provided all neighborhoods
are covered equally. "I'm not sure we can have a coordinator
for every little commercial strip. That kind of money isn't out
there," he said.
However, many Merchant Coordinators feel that the new system
would leave a number of businesses out in the cold. Mohamoud
Ahmed, Merchant Coordinator of the Parkville Business Association,
said Hartford's small businesses need someone who is, "on
the street and not sitting back in some office downtown."
Ahmed said many of the business owners in the Parkville area,
especially recent immigrants from Vietnam, Laos and other countries,
would not think of approaching city hall for assistance. He added
that small business owners often simply do not have the time
to attend community and city meetings, which could effect their
business. The Merchant Coordinators attend the meetings, relay
the views of the businesses they represent and then report back
to the community, Ahmed said.
Luis Colon, Merchant Coordinator for the New Britain Avenue Merchants
Association, agreed, saying, "The Merchant Coordinators
provide a function which I feel would be very difficult for the
city bureaucracy to provide. We're down in the trenches on a
day to day basis."
Morrissey said reducing the city to five large business zones
would ignore the different needs and resources of various neighborhoods.
Santy said that, while the neighborhoods may be different, he
is not sure that the actual needs of the businesses in those
neighborhoods are all that different.
Councilman Mike McGarry said the City's economic development
effort certainly needs improving but he would like to hear more
discussion on how to preserve the Merchant Coordinator system
in some form. "These people [the Merchant Coordinators]
have established good relationships with city businesses. I think
that's valuable to the City. I'd hate to see us just throw it