June 3, 2022

The Swift Factory: Where Preservation Met Community Engagement

The M. Swift & Sons Factory in Hartford, Connecticut, first opened its doors in 1887, and at its height served as the largest gold leaf manufacturer in the country as well as the neighborhood’s primary employer. However, like many New England factories, Swift experienced a significant decline in the second half of the 20th century, coinciding with difficult times for the surrounding area. Today, nearly half of North Hartford’s residents live in poverty, with unemployment rates are over 27 percent, more than five times the national rate.

For those who grew up in North Hartford, the active factory was shrouded in urban myths for those unfamiliar with the business. However, in 2010 community groups and residents became committed to supporting their neighborhood, and believed the factory was a key to revitalization.

Community leaders reached out to the national nonprofit Community Solutions to help bring the factory back to life. Their first step was to talk with residents to understand their needs and goals. During this process, the development team hired John Thomas, a member of the community who grew up in North Hartford, as a community engagement coordinator.

As part of his work Thomas surveyed and spoke with area families about what was most needed to help North Hartford thrive. The responses focused on several key areas: job creation, economic development, youth engagement, community health, revitalization, and safety. With this mandate from the community, Community Solutions got to work planning a rehabbed space that would include a commercial food manufacturing kitchen, a food business incubator, community space, and nonprofit office space.

An Ariel view of the Swift Factory in North Hartford, Connecticut.

photo by: NTCIC

An aeriel view of the Swift Factory in the North Hartford neighborhood.

With plans in place and revitalization efforts beginning, the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s subsidiary, the National Trust Community Investment Corporation (NTCIC), stepped in to support the project with vital funding. NTCIC supported the financing for the $4.5 million in federal Historic Tax Credits generated by the project, and provided $10 million in New Markets Tax Credit allocation.

With its solid community-engagement process as well as local and national support, this project will preserve a neighborhood anchor while creating opportunities for a vibrant local economy and increased community resiliency.

To learn more about Swift Factory, we sat down with Thomas, now the organization's assistant project manager, to learn more about his own history with the factory and his role in connecting community and development.

How has the neighborhood changed in the years you've lived in the area?

The neighborhood I grew up in had a viable African American business community that inspired us in many ways. From buying fruit and candy on the way to school, to patronizing restaurants, record stores, local doctors, dentists, and lawyers, we had examples of people who looked like us that were business owners.

These people commanded respect on a level that influenced behavior and set norms for residents that no longer exist. Throughout the [1970s and ‘80s], the old way of hustling forward was replaced by what I call hustling backwards through the illicit drug trade that replaced legitimate commerce. It is my hope that this project can replace that dynamic through our tenants' (mostly from the African diaspora) operations.

How did you interact with the factory when you were younger?

The factory is situated across the street from my aunt's house. I grew up visiting my cousins and we would play along the Garden Street side of the factory. [But] it wasn't really incorporated in the community. It was a gold leaf operation, and discretion was of upmost importance [for security reasons]. If you were related to someone who worked there, you knew what went on in the factory. The opaque windows and fencing really drove urban myths about what went on there.

How did you first get involved with the project?

[Before working on the project] I was a firefighter. I lost my job in a DUI accident. I was in recovery for three years before I even attempted to apply for a job here, and Community Solutions was the only place I interviewed that said my experiences were valuable to their mission.

And so, I got involved through my recovery process. My fellows suggested I go out and volunteer for the community since we spent so much time taking away from it. I was at a "Friends of Keney Park" meeting where I was volunteering and our president, Rosanne Haggerty, made a pitch for a Conway School Plan to link green infrastructure in the neighborhood through capital projects and I was hooked. I did not know it was a pre-developmental effort to begin to engage the community on the project.

Today, I am the Assistant Project Manager at Swift, managing our marketing and social media presence, but I pinch hit for various Community Solutions teams solving specific community engagement issues. I am currently working on getting exposure for our unoccupied units as well as working on a team convened to create a mediation program for landlords and tenants in anticipation of mass evictions.

How was the community involved in the process? What steps has/did the development team take to ensure the building would support the community and under-represented groups?

Rosanne [Haggarty] reached out to the community and the community became deeply involved with the process from the time I and another colleague came on the team. Our first task was to do a quick 5 question survey in the neighborhood involving about 400 residents asking what they needed the development to achieve to create positive change. From there, a matrix of uses (which is fulfilled) was developed to reflect their needs, ie. jobs, youth development, and public safety. Since then, we have attended every Neighborhood Revitalization Zone (Community Board) meeting, and have maintained a standing slot on its agenda.

Ariel view of the Swift Factory

photo by: NTCIC

The Swift factory groundbreaking. John Thomas is the individual at the farthest right.

We also did a ton of pre-development work, hosting workshops, celebrations, and learning sessions. We developed relationships through organizing residents and youth. We created place making projects and events to begin to weave the project narrative into that of the general community.

I joined the city’s construction hiring task force and learned what loopholes construction companies were creating to circumvent local hiring, then proceeded to create a system to close them. In essence we defined "good faith effort" on our construction phase and held contractors to that definition. We ended up surpassing the city's construction hiring and minority business utilization requirements, and even drove an 11% Promise Zone (neighborhood) hiring rate. We also urge our tenants to hire from the neighborhood.

What's the response to the factory's development in the community?

The community's initial response to the development of the factory was one based in fear. Residents wanted to know why, all of a sudden after 50 plus years, "white" people were so interested in investing in this community. It was a rough time for me, as I was accused of selling the community out as well as many other things based in the African American narrative.

When the concept was first announced, people thought it was just a ruse to attract funding to grow Community Solutions as a nonprofit. Much of our pre-development work brought us into the nonprofit space engaging such issues as health outcomes, housing, place making, and public safety. The nonprofit community was threatened by our presence and our command of data. When it was announced the development would happen, people did not believe we would achieve our goal. It was not until completion that people began to come around.

How have things changed since the initial reaction?

We held a groundbreaking ceremony at the beginning of construction where stakeholders, politicians, and community members began to wrap their minds around the fact that we were actually beginning the project. They disseminated that message to their respective constituents, and we began to develop trust.

Now that we have been in operation for some time, people are beginning to see businesses in operation and identify with the "Black Wall Street" concept I've been messaging surrounding Swift housing businesses that will drive the change this community needs. One thing that helps is the "development without displacement" approach to our project.

The major driver I believe is that we actually have social impact investors, and we have to meet their metrics on the project. Without that, things could probably go sideways when this stuff gets too tough to accomplish. And the fact that we are creating a Community Land Trust to stabilize housing surrounding the project and throughout the North Hartford Promise Zone offsets any "gentrifying" concerns.

Looking to the Future

Community Solutions completed the restoration of the factory in 2019, and it is now home to more than a dozen businesses creating new jobs and services for North Hartford, with more on the way. Swift will soon be home to a neighborhood branch of the Hartford Public Library as well as a branch of Chase Bank, the first bank to open in the area in decades. The two organizations will be connected both physically and programmatically, with plans to provide financial literacy and training courses.

As Community Solutions continues to bring in new tenants to the building, the organization is also focusing its attention on creating the community land trust to ensure the area housing market remains affordable and accessible for long-time residents. The trust will be led by a board comprised of community stakeholders and local residents with the goal of taking ownership of several apartment buildings in the neighborhood to ensure the units are renovated, continuously maintained, and remain affordable.

The Swift Factory is a shining example of the types of projects NTCIC strives to support. Not only was a historic landmark saved, but a community has also been revitalized. The project brought hundreds of much-needed jobs to Hartford. Swift’s affordable retail and office spaces support a wide range of nonprofit organizations, Black-owned, and women-owned businesses. The Swift Factory revitalization proves that when groups and communities work collaboratively and creatively, great things can happen.

Mike Palien is the director of marketing and communications at the National Trust Community Investment Corporation.

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By: Mike Palien

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