You can talk trash with Jordan Polon. It’s something she deals with every day at work.
But don’t trash talk about Hartford.
“I never understand when people say that Hartford is conveniently located between New York and Boston,” says Polon, executive director of the Hartford Business Improvement District. “That’s like saying pizza is conveniently located between lobster and steak. I happen to think pizza is good on its own.”
It’s Polon’s job is to promote Hartford and she’s doing everything she can to make it clean, safe and fun. She reports to 109 owners of 209 properties in the district, which includes The Hartford and Aetna to the west, and the Travelers and Phoenix insurance companies to the east of her Pratt Street office.
Polon says that a clean and safe city attracts more visitors. It’s something she learned as a pyrotechnic supervisor and manager of the Batman Thrill spectacular at Six Flags New England in Agawam, Mass.
“Don’t pass it up, pick it up was drilled into our heads every day,” Polon says. “They told us that no matter how well run your rides are, if that attraction is surrounded by garbage, people perceive that it’s not safe.”
The same thinking applies to Hartford’s city streets. These quality-of-life services create a better perception to those who work and play in Hartford. And so, one of the major missions is collecting the 130,000 pounds of litter tossed on the streets annually.
“It’s the equivalent of 36 Subarus,” Polon says. “You could fill up the Convention Center ballroom with it.”
Among the items found: an FBI badge, a $30,000 check and countless cell phones.
If you lock yourself out of your car or need to jump a dead battery, HBID provides that service. In 2015, its team of 19 Ambassadors responded to 654 roadside assistance calls, removed 1,700 graffiti tags, spent 604 hours shoveling snow and answered 2,750 hospitality calls. They use fake tickets to remind folks not to leave a laptop or cell phone in plain sight in their parked car.
When construction is affecting foot or car traffic, they will put up a sign reminding folks it’s a short amount of pain for a permanent gain. “We can post ‘We’re Getting Diggy With It,’ or ‘Pardon Our Appearance While We Get more Awesome,'” Polon says. That sign with attitude is not a tactic that the city itself would use.
It’s easy to find the Ambassadors. They are walking the streets outfitted in bright green, or behind the wheel of their lime-green cars. The Ambassadors work for Block by Block, a national firm that provides local service to the 45 blocks in the district under contract with HBID. They work closely with Hartford Guides (in blue and black shirts), who provide similar services outside the district.
“If the Guides need some backup, we’ll be there,” Polon says. “Or vice versa.”
Now to the fun.
HBID manages the annual Hooker Day Parade, the quirky salute to the Rev. Thomas Hooker, which was started by Mike Peters, former mayor of Hartford.
“It’s a lot of work for 45 minutes of parade,” Polon says. HBID makes sure each community group has “throwees,” beads and candy to toss to the crowd. Members work with the late mayor’s son, Chris Peters, to block off a street for his classic car show that raises money for Mayor Mike’s Foundation.
When one or both of the UConn basketball teams win the NCAA Tournament, Polon’s office sets up the parade. This has become an annual exercise lately with the women’s team.
They worked on the Hartford Has It campaign to promote feel-good stories and photos of the city and its residents. The Instagram account #hartfordhasit, has more than 21,000 posts.
“Every post is positive,” Polon says. “I check it every night before I go to sleep. It puts me in such a great mood. I feel like we are all moving from cautiously optimistic to regular old optimistic.”
Her office runs www.hartford.com, where arts, music, theater, comedy, and dining and drinking events can be self-submitted and are posted after a webmaster vets them. It also hosts descriptions of restaurants and bars, shops, where to exercise, hotels and parks, a handy parking map and a link to the city’s hartford.gov site.
Polon and her marketing director, Chip McCabe, are brainstorming about performance and music events. “We look at our list of passion projects, and try to find the money to make them happen.” That could be challenging this year as Hartford tightens its budget. (HBID’s budget comes from a 1.5 mill assessment to the tax bill of the property owners she reports to in the district. That comes out to a $990,211 annual budget based on the $660.14 million assessed property value.)
HBID began in 2006 and was run by Michael Zaleski, with Polon as his director of marketing. When Zaleski left to run Riverfront Recapture, Polon took over. After graduating from the Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts, Polon entered UMass as a theater major. She left after a year. At 19, she went to Manhattan, strung together jobs as a stage manager and shared living space with friends. At 22 she came home, after folks kept guessing she was 30 years old.
“I was exhausted. I thought I would stay here, work some and then head back to New York.” She saw Hartford through new eyes.
“I rediscovered the city,” she says. “I found myself falling in love with it again.”
She worked with Arnold Chase managing 100 actors a night in the basement of the old G. Fox building for Haunted Happenings and Winter Wonderland, which raised money for the American Diabetes Association. She spent six years running events at Six Flags. She managed the Welcome Center for the Greater Hartford Arts Council.
In her current job she works for the landlords, but she hears from the tenants.
“I do really feel like this is the first time I can remember in a long time where it feels truly collaborative,” she says. “It feels like I have friends and happy conspirators around every corner.”
One of them is artist Tao LaBossiere, who built an 8-foot-tall exclamation point that can be broken down and moved to event locations. “We always envisioned finding a permanent home for it,” Polon says.
“Why a punctuation mark? Well why not?”
The creation comes with a soap box, because someone can speak their piece or sit down on it.
“We are working on something that has an element of unexpected fun,” she says, hoping to integrate the sculpture into a future project. “Hartford really isn’t a busking city, but we’ll figure something out.”
Polon stays away from discussing local politics, but she knows Mayor Luke Bronin as a fellow parent. “Our kids took a ballet class together.”
“Put the financial stuff aside and all of the challenges the administration is facing,” Polon says, “In terms of what I do here, the kinds of friends I’ve made … I couldn’t hope to live in a better place.”