Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Closure on Connecticut (Part 2 of 3): Leftovers

All of my business with New Britain is old business; these three items I wanted to clear off the agenda happen to be about business as well. All are offered in the spirit of constructive criticism, not to bash a city and people for whom I have a great deal of affection.

First: Hardware City Tavern is a beautiful place with friendly owners and workers. It is a boon to downtown New Britain, and it is exciting that people have somewhere to go before and after shows at the Trinity-on-Main performance center and Hole in the Wall Theater. I have had a few meals at the tavern and even spent some time at the pool tables (another huge plus for the tavern and downtown).

The quality of the food and service, though, have been indifferent the times I have gone. Despite the tavern’s essential monopoly on evening or slightly higher-end diners downtown, this may be something the owners and managers should know to ensure their long-term success. This delightfully designed restaurant and bar, the very presence of which is a great gift, shouldn’t suffer any avoidable loss of business, and its creators deserve all the riches they can get for taking a chance on the city and doing it as thoughtfully as they did.

Second: In discussions with several city residents over the past few months, I encountered a great deal of skepticism about New Britain’s downtown revitalization plans. In short, the area seems too spread out, with too little retail, dining, nightlife and entertainment uses clustered to achieve the critical mass suggested by planners during presentations a couple of years back. It’s doubtful ground-floor business in the proposed police station at Main and Chestnut, or on Chestnut on either side of the Harry S. Truman Overpass, will reach that level.

That puts in doubt the ongoing arrival of masses of university students on the busway expected to be running in 2013, and the building of a downtown events center (once to be built in NewBrite Plaza but displaced by the opening of stores such as A.J. Wright) is also iffy. Apartments, retail and a semi-public park going on what is now The Herald property could be first to come, as it may cost more for developers to pull out than to complete the job, but it’s yet to be seen whether the economy will force compromises there or at the site most likely to see renewal after that, the police station.

Charter Oak State College will be slower to move from Paul J. Manafort Drive than developers once thought; the reconfiguration of roads and parking over by Liberty Square and the courthouse looks to be an asphalt desert, hardly conforming to the New Urbanist ethic suggested elsewhere by master developer Arete and Haddam-based designers Harrall-Michalowski Associates; and state transportation officials say a New Britain terminal will be among the last steps taken on their busway plans.

The main question is how well the master plan works when construction proceeds haltingly, providing less for the young professionals intended to move in to new apartments and condos and take advantage of a bustling downtown and easy access to highways and mass transportation.

That’s why it would be interesting to hear what the economic downturn has done to revitalization plans, but I’ve only seen tangential references or cursory analysis. The last real look at the overall $300 million plan, which relies largely on private investors at a time few are investing, was in August.

One city official I spoke with referred to the plans as “stalled,” while another seemed optimistic — largely based on the positive things he saw about downtown New Britain now — but in agreement that the economy was taking its toll on the overall scheme.

It would be nice to see the city’s plans work out, but before that is needed a good analysis of what’s at stake and how the plan is expected to function in the current environment.

Third: The city’s chamber of commerce stumbled in creating its municipal economic development Web site, called — take a breath, or at least flex your fingers before typing it into a browser — newbritainmunicipaleconomicdevelopment.com.

It’s a fine site, and I hope it serves as that desired first step in drawing businesses to the city. The name, though, while descriptive, is a tad on the long side.

With search engines being as efficient as they are, and considering the nature of those most likely to go to the site, the exhaustively spelled-out nature of this URL may be unnecessary or even counterproductive. While it may sound unlikely, having someone type 38 characters in a row without spaces can result in a typo that thwarts a user from finding the site, and that gets in the way of the chamber’s goal. (Using a search engine such as Google to find the site avoids the need to type the URL at all, but it also obviates the need for a name that lengthy. Search engines pay more attention to site content than to URLs.)

At the very least, the name raises problems when used in print: If it appears at the end of a line, a word processor may want to break it at a syllable, and readers will have to wonder if the hyphen they see in text is supposed to be used on the Web as well.

Web experts frown on extremely long URLs for a number of reasons, and although newbritainmunicipaleconomicdevelopment.com isn’t quite so long as the bandwidth-wasters and broken-link-creators they generally warn against, why not consider going shorter in the future? The URLs nbmunicipaleconomicdevelopment.com and even nbmunied.com are available, for instance, and similar shortcuts could be used if there are additional sites to be made and named.

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