State Funds West Hartford Center Restaurant

Our state’s $291 million investment in medical research at the UConn Health Center is a smart move. The same for the millions of dollars pouring into stem cell research. The $112 million Connecticut will sink into the busway may even one day prove prescient.

These and other projects under Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s aggressive economic development strategy are what’s needed after years of somnolent leadership in a state that has failed to create jobs and nurture new business.

But a $47,500 grant from the taxpayers to make sure West Hartford Center gets another trendy restaurant?

Among a slew of economic stimulus grants and loans announced last week, handing taxpayer money to help convert Reuben’s Deli on West Hartford’s Lasalle Road to a restaurant and bar feels like just too much. Even my local focus group of friends who regularly go to West Hartford restaurants – two doctors and a sucessful businessman I met for a couple of beers one night this week – had a hard time swallowing this one.

Why is the state in the business of propping up a business in a booming town center that has been in the midst of a restaurant explosion in recent years?

“I can understand how people might look at it (that) way,” said Catherine Smith, commissioner of Economic and Community Development for the state, when I called. “Our belief was they would not go forward with the expansion unless we helped them.”

The folks at Reuben’s, understandably perhaps, did not respond when I called and emailed looking to talk. And who can blame them for applying for a state grant under the generous Small Business Express program, a $100 million initiative that also provides loans? The program is aimed at helping Connecticut’s “base industries” such as “precision manufacturing, business services, green and sustainable technology, bioscience and information technology.”

It’s just that corned beef on rye doesn’t strike me as one of our base industries.

To be sure, this is hardly a no strings attached deal: Reuben’s promises to invest $180,000 of its own cash and to hire five new workers in return for the $47,500 state grant. That’s five jobs that will be created in a still-struggling state recovery that has left 150,000 people without jobs. By a lot of measures, that’s a win.

“We view the Small Business Express program as a Main Street-regular-old-business-guy being able to access state assistance to make an investment in business that they haven’t made because of the economy,” Smith said. “These programs are about getting small business to do more and grow fast and create jobs We underwrite each of these deals. We make sure the company isn’t about to go flat on its face.”

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State Funds West Hartford Center Restaurant