Danbury, now hatless, gets a second wind

Tom Condon / CTMirror.org

Main Street in Danbury

Manufacturing cities that focus on a single product often struggle or implode when that industry goes away. Danbury is an exception. The “Hat City” is pretty far along at reinventing itself.

Perched on Connecticut’s western border, Danbury isn’t well known in much of the state. Some are aware of its federal prison or its big shopping mall, or that, indeed, it was a place where they used to make hats.

But with longtime Mayor Mark Boughton a leading contender for the Republican gubernatorial nomination next year, Danbury could garner more attention. It has a good story to tell; to wit:

  • Unlike much of the state, Danbury is growing.  The city has added more than 10,000 new residents since 2000, to reach an estimated population of 84,992, according to census estimates released this week. Danbury’s increases of nearly one percent in each of the last two years were the largest among  the state’s 10 largest cities. (Danbury is the state’s seventh largest municipality).
  • Danbury’s economy is diverse and resilient. An economic study by DataCore Partners LLC released in April found that the Danbury labor market area — Danbury and five suburban towns — had recovered 107 percent of the jobs it lost during the recession, which “clearly outperformed” the state’s 74.1 percent job-recovery rate. The city’s unemployment rate of 3.9 percent in April, per state labor department figures, was well below the state’s 4.7 percent. (Both figures are not seasonably adjusted, which is the only way town data is presented. The state’s seasonally adjusted figure for April was 4.9 percent.)
  • Observers say Boughton inherited an efficiently managed city in 2002 (from Democrat Gene Eriquez) and has continued in that vein, keeping taxes down, crime low and budgets balanced.
  • Danbury is a little United Nations, one of Connecticut’s most ethnically diverse cities, with residents from Ecuador, Portugal, Brazil, Lebanon, Poland, Peru, India, Vietnam, Cambodia, Mexico, and other countries. Forty-three languages are spoken in Danbury schools, according to the school board web site. 

“I give them (Boughton and his administrators) a lot of credit,” said veteran economist Don Klepper-Smith, DataCore’s chief economist and director of research. “They are all pulling on the same end of the rope.”

Hat City

In Connecticut’s industrial age, a number of manufacturing towns were known for a single product — brass in Waterbury, thread in Willimantic, silk in Manchester, etc. Danbury workers made men’s hats. Starting in the late 18th century, when local hatters got a toehold in New York and other major markets, the city grew to be the country’s largest manufacturer of men’s hats. 

Tom Condon / CTMirror.org

Mayor Mark Boughton

By 1880 the city’s hat factories were turning out 4.5 million hats a year, according to connecticuthistory.org.  At the turn of the 20th century, the peak period, Danbury produced nearly 25 percent of the nation’s finished hats and 75 percent of the unfinished hat bodies, which were finished in small shops near major markets, according to “Danbury Crowns Them All,” a book by local teacher and historian William Devlin.

But labor strife, health issues such as “hatter’s shakes” from exposure to mercury in the hat-making process and, particularly, changes in fashion doomed the hat industry. Devlin said in an interview that the coming of the automobile meant men wore less outerwear, including hats, which would often get knocked off as they got into the car. The GIs who returned from World War II, notably the skipper of PT 109, gradually stopped wearing hats. The last hat was made in the last hat factory in Danbury in 1987. The last “Hatters” are the athletes at Danbury High School.

Other cities were crippled by the loss of their major industry; Danbury not as much, for several reasons. The city had built an infrastructure — roads, rail, reservoirs, housing — that would welcome other businesses. Also, hatters were skilled artisans who could make other things. There was a long tradition of women in the workforce. Finally, said Devlin, Danbury was one of the first communities in the nation to create a formal economic development program.

Danbury

This, he explained, was largely the work of hat factory owner Frank Lee. Though he was profoundly unpopular in many quarters for busting the hatters union, Lee had seen the shift from bowlers to fedoras, and understood that Danbury’s future would be uncertain if its entire industrial base relied on the whim and vagaries of fashion.

He and other business leaders formed the Danbury Industrial Corporation in 1918, with the goal of providing land and modern facilities for new industries. Though it got off to a slow start, the city had a structure in place to engage the economic expansion after World War II. By recruiting new businesses as the hat industry faded, Danbury never collapsed and never lost its middle class, said Devlin.

Location, location

Danbury enjoys two geographical assets: size and location. The city has an area of 44 square miles, more than twice the size of Hartford, New Haven or Bridgeport. In a state heavily reliant on local property taxes, it is ever so helpful to have taxable property. Mayor Boughton said in an interview that the city’s size allows it to have a downtown, suburban-style neighborhoods and two farms in the outskirts.

In the unlikely event that Connecticut’s dire fiscal situation gets anyone thinking about governmental reorganization, perhaps 44 square miles — or 52 square miles as in booming Stamford — is the size that cities ought to be.

Tom Condon / CTMirror.org

The new Kennedy Flats in Danbury

In addition to size, Danbury’s proximity to New York is an asset: “strategic,” as Greater Danbury Chamber of Commerce President Stephen A. Bull put it. Danbury is in northern Fairfield County, accessible to the Gold Coast — southern Fairfield County — and New York’s Westchester and Putnam counties, pricey areas all. With housing that is comparatively affordable, Danbury draws residents from its region. “People from New York like the peace and quiet in Danbury, and the diversity,” said Jonathan Suarez, a young electrician who grew up in town.

Size and location came together in the 1970s, when major New York corporations were moving to suburban locations. The completion of I-684 put the city an hour away from Manhattan. Five major companies moved to large swaths of land in the western part of Danbury near the New York line, the largest of which was Union Carbide, which built the largest freestanding building in the state. In the early 1980s Danbury traded its historic fairgrounds for one of the Northeast’s largest shopping malls, the Danbury Fair Mall. 

Though some felt the move took some of the city’s soul — Boughton said his father, a mayor in the 1970s, would not set foot in the mall — it produced the city’s largest taxpayer and a major employment center. 

The city has had booms and lulls, as most cities have. Growth has strained the schools; some complain about traffic. Union Carbide was restructured after the tragic 1984 sabotage of its plant in Bhopal, India, and eventually was sold to Dow Chemical. But, said Bull, a number of Union Carbide spinoffs, notably the industrial gases company Praxair, are still in Danbury. 

Today the city’s economy is “remarkably diverse,” said Klepper-Smith, with small and medium-sized manufacturing firms making ball bearings, fuel cells, pharmaceuticals, aerospace parts and other products. There are job opportunities in health care, construction and higher education. Hundreds of residents commute to jobs in Norwalk, Stamford or New York City, though the latter is a bit of a haul.

But if geography alone were destiny, other cities — perhaps Bridgeport — would be further along. Danbury, said Klepper-Smith, is a well-run city that has leveraged its opportunities and “exhibited a bit more fiscal discipline” than some other cities. The tax rate of 28.68 mills is lower than in some smaller suburban communities. The labor contracts do not include extravagances such as overtime calculated into pension formulas, Boughton said.

Tom Condon / CTMirror.org

El Bacano restaurant in Danbury offers Ecuadorian cuisine

Boughton has been elected to eight straight two-year terms since 2001. People describe him as pragmatic, low-key, effective and decidedly pro-business.

For example, he has instituted “concurrent permitting,” which means that a prospective business owner in need of permitting brings in a half dozen sets of plans and they are handed to all the departments that need to rule on it — police, fire, engineering, health, planning — simultaneously. A permitting coordinator quarterbacks the effort. “If it doesn’t have to go to planning and zoning, we can usually get it done in one-and-a-half or two days,” said Boughton. He also opens city hall at 7 a.m. for the convenience of business people.

Crime has remained low. Per 2015 state numbers, the most recent available, the city’s rate of 1,932 crimes per 100,000 residents is below the state average of 2,054 per 100,000 souls, making Danbury one of the state’s safest large or mid-sized cities. 

Though they must acclimate and educate a large immigrant population, and 53 percent of its 11,300 students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, the schools hold their own. For example, the percentage of Danbury High School students enrolling in college is 67.9 percent, just below the state average of 71.9 percent. This year two seniors at the schools — the state’s largest high school — received appointments to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Downtown

Like many other cities, Danbury has taken a number of steps to revitalize its downtown. There is a downtown special services district called City Center; a business incubator called Danbury Hackerspace where tinkerers can work on ideas for new businesses under the tutelage of retired business people; an expanded community college campus and downtown housing. A major development called Kennedy Flats just opened downtown with 370 units and is 70 percent occupied.

It seems to be having the desired effect. “We are seeing more people on the street,” said Jacqueline Smith, editorial page editor of the Danbury News-Times. Though there are still a few empty storefronts, three coffee houses have opened in the last year, said P. J. Prunty, executive director of City Center.  The city pays attention to little things; for example, the bus shelters are clean. 

Boughton has had his battles with city council Democrats across the years, over the usual doings of local government: spending (too much or not enough, depending), staffing, raises (the council wanted more input), transparency, and other issues. “I will say this: our relationship has always been civil,” said Tom Saadi, the council’s Democratic caucus leader. “We can agree, or we can agree to disagree. When we agree, we move forward.” The Republicans hold a 15-6 majority on the council.

Immigrants

To walk through downtown and see the plethora of ethnic restaurants and other immigrant-owned businesses is to be reminded that Danbury’s growth has been in large part driven by immigrants, from the Irish, Germans and Italians who came in the 19th century to build the railroads and make the hats, to the big surge of people from Central and South America in the past two decades.

But whether this growth will continue is uncertain, with President Donald Trump cracking down on immigration and even threatening — at times — to deport all of the estimated 11 million undocumented residents living in the country. This has people in Danbury worried, said Ecuadorian business leader Wilson Hernandez, owner of the popular “La Mitad Del Mundo” restaurant (the name roughly translates to “center of the world,” a nickname that references Ecuador’s position on the equator). He said people in the area who were thinking of buying or improving homes or starting businesses now wonder if they should take the step. Asked if these folks were undocumented, he said he imagined it was a mix, even within families, but wasn’t certain: “It is a very sensitive question to ask.”

Boughton had a couple of well-publicized issues with his immigrant community more than a decade ago. The most serious was in 2006, when city police detectives assisted federal agents in a sting operation that nabbed 11 undocumented Ecuadorian day laborers, who boarded a van believing they were heading to a job site. The “Danbury 11” sued and won a $400,000 settlement from the city.

Tom Condon / CTMirror.org

Emanuela Palmares, editor of La Tribuna

But since then Boughton has mended fences and enjoys considerable support in immigrant communities, including the Ecuadorians. Emanuela Palmares, the dynamic, Brazilian-born editor of Tribuna, a community newspaper published in English, Spanish and Portuguese, said the Ecuadorian community likes Boughton. “He works hard, he takes his job seriously, and he has helped immigrant communities on different fronts,” she said.

Nevertheless, Boughton butted heads with Gov. Dannel Malloy and other Democratic leaders earlier this year over the governor’s response to Trump’s hard-line immigration policy. Boughton criticized Malloy for a memo the governor sent to school and law enforcement leaders reminding them they don’t have to enforce federal immigration laws.

Boughton called Malloy’s memo “deeply irresponsible” and said he would continue to cooperate with federal authorities. But though his rhetoric is stronger, the substance of Boughton’s position doesn’t appear radically different from that of “sanctuary city” mayors.

Boughton is fine with deporting serious criminals — as are other mayors and most in the immigrant communities — but doesn’t want innocent people stopped on the street or harassed in their homes, and will not initiate action against immigrants over their status. 

And like many other mayors he would like to see a program of national immigration reform that offers a path to legalization. Palmares agrees, and thinks the national Republican Party (she is a Republican) is “so missing the mark” by not pushing for immigration reform. She said many of the recent immigrants started small businesses — “sometimes it is easier to start a business than get a job” — and would track toward traditional GOP values.

She said though frightened by crackdowns, most new residents would hate to leave because they feel connected to the city. “We have made it work,” she said. “We all love Danbury.”

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