The Town of Enfield, Connecticut, comprising Enfield, Thompsonville and Hazardville, is a small suburb located in Hartford County, north of Hartford, Connecticut and south of Springfield, Massachusetts. Named for Enfield Town in Middlesex, England after the three areas merged, the region was well-known due to Colonel Augustus George Hazard, whose company manufactured gunpowder in the Powder Hollow area of the town from the 1830s to the 1910s, and was the largest producer of munitions during the Civil War.
The Town itself is only 33.8 square miles and has a population of approximately 46,000 people, but it is the commercial and residential hub of the Hartford-Springfield interstate region, an integrated economic area that straddles the Connecticut-Massachusetts border.
Over 3,000 businesses, which range from small, independently owned operations to large corporate headquarters have flocked to the area because of its desirable location on I-91 highway, which offers easy access to major hubs of commerce like Boston and New York City, and its close proximity to Bradley International Airport, with nonstop flights across the U.S. and to Canada, Europe, and Mexico.
The combination of the town’s location, workforce and quality of life has attracted the likes of LEGO® Systems, Inc. – the Denmark based, world-renowned producer of children’s building blocks – for its U.S. headquarters; MassMutual Insurance, who founded its operations in Enfield in 1851 and now employs 2,000 people in the area; and Retail Brand Alliance, who has 280 retail clothing stores, including Brooks Brothers, in both the U.S. and overseas.
Other businesses such as DaySpring, Sunrise Greetings, AdvanceAuto Parts Distribution, Cirtec Medical, Inc., Presstek, Preferred Display, Phoenix Manufacturing, Spazzarini Construction,Inc., Eppendorf, and Martin-Brower Distribution have also found value in locating their operations in the region.
Many of the residents also work in the manufacturing industry building aircraft engines for Pratt & Whitney and numerous other small manufacturers that make aviation parts for the military, and in the financial and insurance industry. For these residents, the easy access to the freeway makes this possible as they commute to Hartford and Springfield for these jobs.
In addition to a thriving business economy, the region is also known for its education system and is commonly referred to as “New England’s Knowledge Corridor” due to the concentration of 29 colleges and universities, whose combined total enrolment exceeds 120,000 students. Many of the students who attend the community colleges and trade schools stay in the region upon graduation; however, the region is also impacted by the phenomenon of the “brain drain,” as those studying four-year programs tend to migrate to the larger urban centers where there are more opportunities and options for nightlife and culture. The town has recognized the impact that this has had, as its demographics are shifting, with the median age consisting of people in their late 40s to early 50s.
“Enfield’s got great bones, there’s no question about it, but it needs to find its footing in the global economy,” says Michael Ciriello, Director of Development for The Town of Enfield.
There are always efforts to retain and expand, as well as attract new business to the region – in fact, Enfield was the smallest region to apply to be a candidate for Amazon.com’s newest headquarters – but currently, the major undertaking is to ensure the town’s growth.
In early 2000, the town was part of the effort to expand commuter rail service in Connecticut, expanding commuting access and creating economic opportunity in existing town centers. Now after 18 years, phase one of a multi-phase commuter service will kick off in the spring. The Hartford Line Commuter Rail System will connect towns and cities along the Connecticut River from New Haven, with connections to Manhattan, through Hartford to Springfield, and will help to alleviate traffic in the rush hours and allow residents and visitors to easily travel for business and pleasure. The service will be more frequent, less expensive, more user-friendly, and serve more town centers, than the current intercity Amtrak service.
The commuter rail service will operate out of the old Thompsonville train station, which is ideally located on the Connecticut River, and this has huge implications for the town. Thompsonville, which is part of the Town’s Historic District, has struggled since 1970 when the carpet mill, which employed 5000 people at the time, closed down. The opening of this station will act as a catalyst to reinvigorate the area.
Another driver that will act in conjunction with the opening of the station is the revival of the riverfront. Historically there wasn’t much access to the water due to pollution, but now the river is clean and the area is being adapted to give people access to quality outdoor recreational activities.
“There used to be an attitude that if you had jobs and cheap housing that people would just come and live in your community, and that’s changing a bit,” says Peter Bryanton, the Department of Development Services’ Director of Community Development Division for the Town of Enfield. “People are much more in tune to quality of life issues, and that includes outdoor recreation, entertainment, bars and restaurants and things like that.”
When Enfield was thriving from both a business and residential perspective, it was a typical bedroom community. In the 1950s and 60s the area was developed very quickly because it was flat and it sprawled out. Single-family subdivisions, shopping centers, and office parks were developed without a real long-term plan. It was very attractive to have the big lots and white picket fences, and was a great place to raise a family so there was never an issue attracting residents, but now the town is finding itself looking for ways to provide things that younger generations and retirees want as well.
“The town has all of the infrastructure, all of the resources, all of the pieces and people to make it a great place, it just needs a flame under it,” says Ciriello. “It’s a great location and in a great spot, I just think we’re struggling a bit with the changing economy and changing demographics. We need to do a better job of making it more appealing not just to new businesses, but to new and existing residents.”
This has been a bit of a challenge because the town is facing an issue symptomatic of so many smaller North American towns.
“There is a general sense of exhaustion on the part of people in Enfield,” reflects Ciriello. “They are frustrated with the process and how hard it is to get things done and want to see results. People feel like they have been aspiring for something different for the last 40 years, but it’s just not happened in a way that people imagine it could happen. They travel around to the other places and come back and see that things aren’t changing here the way they are elsewhere and they think ‘why is that?’, and that’s been going on for quite a while.”
Ciriello doesn’t see this as a roadblock though, but more of a challenge. “Part of what we are trying to do is change that narrative… when you are in a place for a long time you start to lose an appreciation for where you are. People don’t appreciate our location in a way that businesses do clearly. Businesses absolutely see that and that’s why they locate here,” says Ciriello.
And change the narrative they are. “One of our big initiatives is to reinvigorate the village centers,” says Bryanton. “Each one has a unique culture and architecture, but have been neglected, so we want to make them more livable, and walkable, and to preserve that culture.”
The second initiative arose from the pitch they were making to Amazon. For the location they were looking at a largely vacant shopping mall that has two freeway interchanges on a freeway that carries 160,000 cars a day. The area has high visibility on a lot of underutilized land, and it is located just a half mile’s walking distance from the train station, so the area presents a lot of opportunity.
The proposed plan is to convert the mall into a 24-hour town center that would contain a vertical mixture of uses. Retail, shops and services would encompass the bottom floors and the top floors would be primarily residential. This area would be a Tax Increment Financing District. The area around the future train station would be known as the Transit Oriented District, and the ultimate goal would be to link these two anchors of town via the freeway and the commuter rail corridor. “It makes sense fiscally and improves the town’s return on investment to facilitate growth in places already served by infrastructure and services,” says Ciriello.
Other initiatives the town has undertaken as a means of improving the quality of life have been the implementation of Community Gardens and a Farmers Market. According to Ciriello, “agriculture is one of the areas of growth and it comes down to proximity to major metropolitan areas that have a lot of people who need food. One of the trends in agriculture is locally produced agriculture products that are then sold locally. New York City and Boston are quite close to us so there are ready markets there.”
In fact, in Connecticut the number of acres in productive agriculture has grown, not shrunk, since 2000, which is remarkable because statistics have shown those numbers shrinking in the rest of the world.
“It’s the town’s goal to protect the agricultural lands that we have and we’re working regionally with the towns around us so that we can have a coordinated effort to grow our regional agricultural economy,” says Ciriello.
Thompsonville also just landed a performing arts group called the Opera House Players who will be taking over an old church in the town. The group, which is very highly regarded regionally, began in Enfield 50 years ago, but moved to another village in an adjacent town. Their presence in that town has a positive impact on the economy and nightlife, so Bryanton and Ciriello see their return as another catalyst for growth, which could result in the addition of new restaurants, bars and breweries.
It’s no doubt that economically, Enfield is a town that has always stood on its laurels. “The town is fine but needs some magic. That’s what the town needs – a little bit of magic,” says Ciriello. And with the spark that has been lit in this region, I think that magic is in the air.