Wednesday, June 14, 2017
What’s the Insurance Capital Without Aetna? Hartford May Find Out
HARTFORD — Very little is going right for this once proud New England capital.
Hartford’s finances are such a shambles that it is on the verge of bankruptcy. In a city already plagued by violence, murders are on the rise this year. Even the minor league baseball stadium, which opened to much fanfare two months ago, is the subject of an F.B.I. investigation over its hefty price tag.
Now comes the latest and perhaps most painful blow: Aetna, the insurance giant, announced last month that it was planning to move its headquarters out of the city it has called home since it was founded more than 150 years ago.
State and city leaders have spent months pleading with the company to stay. Aetna was negotiating with several states for a location of its new headquarters and hoped to have a decision by early summer.
Aetna helped elevate Hartford to international recognition as the world’s insurance capital. Word that it may be packing boxes shows how far the city’s fortunes have fallen.
“In some ways, of all the companies that could move their headquarters out of the state, symbolically this may be the most painful,” said Walter Woodward, Connecticut’s historian and an associate professor at the University of Connecticut. “This is not just a corporate loss. It’s a cultural loss.”
Hartford was once so intertwined with insurance that even Mark Twain, its most famous resident, not only celebrated the city’s lifeblood, but also was a director of the Hartford Accident Insurance Company. In a speech to the a group of insurers in Hartford, which included executives from 10 companies, Twain spoke of Hartford as “a city whose fame as an insurance center has extended to all lands.”
Moody’s downgraded Hartford’s credit rating to junk status last fall, and said it was considering another reduction. A significant factor will be how much additional aid the state will give to Hartford, but state lawmakers have struggled to pass their own budget amid soaring pension payments and declining tax revenue.
Without help from the state, Hartford will have “a hard time paying what they need to pay,” said Leonard Jones, head of local government ratings for Moody’s. “Their wiggle room is bare.”
Aetna’s announcement underscored how Hartford’s deep-seated problems contribute to another: The midsize city finds itself struggling to maintain appeal for young professionals lured by the pull of larger and more dynamic cities.
“Hartford is not ever going to be New York or Boston,” Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a Democrat, said in a statement in response to the company’s potential move.
Mr. Malloy, who has written two letters to Aetna lobbying it not to leave Hartford, said he had repeatedly made clear how much the company meant to the state and was willing to match any incentives offered by another state.
“It is my own opinion that this has more to do with their desire to have executive leadership operate in a larger, more vibrant urban center than Connecticut can currently offer,” the governor has said.
The Hartford Courant, in a sharply worded editorial after Aetna’s announcement, called on elected officials to provide a plan to end the state’s financial troubles and ensure a more thriving future.
“The state’s persistent financial woes and refusal to recalibrate to 21st-century realities have been pushing out people and businesses for years,” the editorial said. “If anyone is still dreaming that all of the state’s problems will be solved with a drive-by casino, legalized marijuana and a few highway toll cameras, they need to wake up.”
Not everyone has given up hope.
Christopher J. Swift, the chief executive of The Hartford, an insurance company whose history dates back over 200 years, pointed to some initiatives that he believed could begin to revitalize the city. They included the construction of new apartments and a proposed new campus for the state university downtown.
“I don’t know if ‘Insurance Capital of the World’ is really necessary or needed for us to carry on our mission,” he said. “I’m bullish on people being attracted to a smaller version of New York or Boston if they want an urban life.”
Bill Breetz, 76, a retired lawyer, spoke with a reporter at the stately stucco house in the city’s West End where his family has lived for nearly 50 years.
“You can’t walk down the street or go to a party without meeting someone who works in the insurance industry,” he said.
Still, he said his wife had never fully taken to the city, even as they raised three children here.
“So it would be easy to convince her that it’s time to get out,” he said. “But we’ve got a wonderful neighborhood. There are all kinds of folks we’ve known forever.”