Sunshine Laundry’s plans to build a new facility in Hartford after a disastrous fire last October were moving right along until just a few weeks ago.
Tyler Smith Architects had developed a plan for the new facility. The City of Hartford had agreed to kick in money for the project through its Facade Improvement Program. The Zoning Board of Appeals approved the company’s plan on April 14.
But then Sunshine’s presentation in front of the City’s Design Review Board was postponed for a month. Sunshine owner Bruce Johnston said he was upset by the postponement because he’d had to pay the designers overtime in order to have the plans ready in time for the presentation.
“It gave me a chance to step back and take a look at the big picture,” Johnson said. He didn’t like what he saw.
Because the new facility he is hoping to build in Hartford would be valued significantly higher than the structure that burned down last October, Johnston estimated his taxes would go from about $30,000 per year to approximately $60,000 annually.
The steep tax hike proposed by Mayor Eddie Perez in the budget he presented to City Council on April 20 was further bad news for Johnston, as were projections for additional tax hikes in the next few years.
Just to pay for the additional taxes, Johnston said his business would have to grow at a rate of about five percent annually. “We have been growing in the past few years and investing the money back into the business,” Johnston said. “But with the economy the way it is now, we might not grow at all. We’ll be lucky to hold our own, like everybody else these days...If we could stay here in Hartford and not go into serious debt, we would. But I don’t see how it’s possible without some help.”
Because Johnston made his decision to stay in Hartford shortly after the fire, he hadn’t really looked into properties in other towns until just recently, although he said the mayors of Newington and Wallingford both called him after the fire to tell him they had space available.
After a brief search, he found a building on Pane Road in Newington that could accommodate his business. The asking price for that building is $1.2 million, significantly less than the $1.8 million he estimates it would cost to build a new facility on the Maple Avenue site.
David Panagore, the City of Hartford’s new Director of Economic Development, said he was unaware that the Sunshine Laundry project had hit a snag.
“I know we’ve made a substantial investment in the project through the facade program...we certainly want to keep them in the city. They’re a major employer down in the South End and a valuable asset to the community. I’ll certainly give them a call and follow up on the current situation.”
It is certainly not unheard of for municipalities to offer tax breaks to businesses who move into their towns, but Panagore said he was not sure if such concessions could be granted in Sunshine’s case. He acknowledged that since the company will have to rebuild in order to remain in the city and because its property value will increase dramatically because of the new facility, its situation is unlike other existing businesses who are also trying to find ways to pay for the city’s steadily increasing taxes. Panagore said he could not give a firm answer either way until he examines the pertinent laws in relationship to Sunshine’s specific situation.
Sunshine Laundry has been a fixture on Maple Avenue since 1917. It employs about 50 people, most of whom are Hartford residents. Johnston said that before the fire about 35 of his employees lived so close to the company that they walked to work each day.
After the fire, Sunshine transferred most of its operations to temporary space at Mayflower Laundry on Prospect Avenue. Almost all of the company’s employees have remained with it since the fire.
Johnston said he is grateful for the support he has received from the neighborhood, including Hyacinth Yennie of the Maple Avenue Revitalization Group and Carl Williams of the South End NRZ. He also said Jose Rodriguez from the Hartford Economic Development Department has been extremely helpful in moving the rebuilding project along.