Hartford factory refashioned into workspace for and by underserved communities wins $3.7M federal pandemic rescue grant

Mark Mirko/Hartford Courant/TNS
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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, spaces for small businesses and a branch of the Hartford Public Library.

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

Lenders for years made capital available to white neighborhoods, while excluding Black residents, he said.

“Many in this state see funding like this as some sort of socialistic handout, but we see this as well-deserved social justice,” Thomas said.

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

“I used to pass this factory as a kid when folks worked here. I also passed it when no one worked here, when folks were leaving my neighborhood,” he said at a news briefing announcing the grant.

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

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said Hartford’s North End has “faced economic disregard and abandonment resulting in deteriorating housing stock and dwindling job opportunities.”

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

The imposing block-long 80,000-square-foot factory, which was built in stages from 1887 to 1948 and closed in 2005, houses mostly Black- and women-owned businesses such as a food business incubator and a kindergarten-to-first grade school. It’s undergoing a $34 million redevelopment.

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

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

U.S. Rep. John Larson, D-1, criticized Republicans, reminding the audience in election year comments that GOP members of Congress voted as a bloc against the COVID-19 rescue plan.

“Now because all the stimulus checks went out with the American Rescue Plan and funny thing in all those red districts they’re sending out letters asking people if they got their check,” he said. “That’s what’s wrong with Congress currently is that there’s not enough pulling together.”

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