WHEN Richard and Doris Sugarman arrived in Hartford in 1989 the region's economy was spiraling downward. They had come from Richmond, Va., home for both of them, because Mr. Sugarman's employer, Advest Inc., had asked him to run its Connecticut division.
As Advest's division manager, part of Mr. Sugarman's job was to learn about the community. And what he saw worried him.
''It looked like a community struggling in a lot of respects,'' he said. ''It appeared not to have a sense of community.'' There was a sense of futility, of addressing problems that many people perceived as too big to tackle, Mr. Sugarman recalled.
As newcomers, the Sugarmans wondered if they could help. So began what came to be known as the Connecticut Forum, a series of discussions on important issues of the day featuring speakers ranging from Henry Kissinger to Bill Cosby to Jackie Joyner-Kersee.
Now in its fourth season, the forum, held at The Bushnell Memorial Hall in downtown Hartford, draws a crowd not only from the Hartford region, but also from parts of Massachusetts and New York.
Just last month, the weekend before Election Day, the first session of the current season featured ''A Spoof on Presidential Politics'' with Rob Bartlett, the comic whose work is best known on the ''Imus in the Morning'' radio show; Al Franken, the political satirist who has been a regular on ''Saturday Night Live''; Jeff Greenfield, the ABC News political and media analyst, and Bob Englehart, political cartoonist for The Hartford Courant. Like all the other forums, it resembled less a performance than a living room chat, in this case, a group of friends getting together for some laughs.
An earlier forum, ''Heroes Among Us'' was scheduled for October, but the Sugarmans agreed to reschedule it until March 18, so that the first Presidential debate could be held at The Bushnell that night.
In addition, over the years, the Sugarmans have helped create community outreach programs that have attempted to put into action forum-generated ideas.
''There was a feeling of bridge building and bringing together various elements of the community from day one,'' said Drew Beja, a Boston investment manager and former Advest analyst who worked with the Sugarmans when the Connecticut Forum was still just an idea.
The idea of a forum was one the Sugarmans brought with them from Richmond, which had created the Richmond Forum about 20 years ago in the midst of a school desegregation ruling that had divided the city.
Mrs. Sugarman saw Richmond and Hartford as two very similar cities, but, like her husband, one of the first things she noticed, she said, was how disconnected the different towns that make up greater Hartford were. The Sugarmans, for instance, settled in Avon, which Mrs. Sugarman discovered was isolated from neighboring Canton. Although the Sugarmans like the small-town feeling of New England, they said they saw how it got in the way of what Mr. Sugarman called ''a greater sense of community.''
They decided to see if there was support for a forum in Connecticut. Mr. Sugarman asked and won support from Advest. Then the couple went to The Hartford Courant and to Connecticut Public Television and Radio. There too they won a commitment. They went to about 25 businesses, seeking financial support. ''The response was an enthusiastic 'yes' with a big 'but,' '' recalled Mr. Sugarman. ''We were told, 'It's a great idea but not in these tough times.' ''
The Sugarmans' response was, ''Why not? Particularly because of the tough times.'' The couple proceeded, and won over the Hartford Downtown Council, the Greater Hartford Chamber of Commerce, the Hartford Graduate Center and Trinity College, among others.
People signed on as volunteers to help organize the forum. ''Some were new to the community and just wanted to get involved,'' said Mrs. Sugarman. ''Some were forever looking for something new.''
Because the organization was in Mrs. Sugarman's words ''very grass roots,'' ideas were turned into action quickly, ''and we all started to feel this was the start of something new and exciting.''
Support grew, in part, said Mr. Sugarman, because it was so easy to get involved. ''We had people say to us they were not challenged to think in their jobs, to create, to experiment, to use their imagination, their passion. Here they could.''
That dare-to-experiment attitude also helped shape the character of the forums. The skepticism brought on by Hartford's economic woes led many longtime residents to think the only panelists they could attract would be local or at best, from elsewhere in Connecticut. But organizers decided to seek out the top experts in their respective fields.
The first forum, held Oct. 16, 1992, was ''The Changing Political Landscape,'' moderated by Lesley Stahl of CBS News. Among those on the panel were Ron Brown, Pat Buchanan, William Proxmire and John Sununu.
Four months later the forum topic was ''Straight Talk and Honest Answers About AIDS,'' which again featured a distinguished panel. One of the panelists, Arthur Ashe, was unable to attend on the advice of his doctors who had just changed his medication, trying to battle his AIDS. In his place, he sent a video he had taped a few days earlier.
At intermission, rumors floated through the theater that Mr. Ashe had died, and a call to The Associated Press revealed that the rumors were true. The announcement was made on stage at the beginning of the second part of the program, and Mr. Sugarman recalled, ''There was a lot of collective grieving and a lot of coming together that night.''
The experience, Mrs. Sugarman said, ''elevated the importance of what we were doing.''
The Sugarmans never did want the forums to be simply an alternative to theater, or just another form of entertainment. Bridge building remained their focus. At intermission during the AIDS forum, doctors from the University of Connecticut Medical Center, Hartford Hospital and St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center decided there ought to be a way to work together to provide better treatment for those with H.I.V., the AIDS-causing virus. That led to a collaborative effort to create a common database.
After a forum on race relations -- which included the rap artist Chuck D., William F. Buckley Jr., Dr. Betty Shabazz (the widow of Malcolm X) and the former Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates -- a group of high school students wanted to continue the dialogue. As a result, the Connecticut Forum Student Board was created, allowing teen-agers from differing backgrounds and communities to meet monthly at each other's schools to discuss current issues and plan a variety of programs.
A ticket program was developed to insure that the forum draws residents into The Bushnell who could not otherwise afford the admission price.
The most recent outgrowth of a forum is the two-year-old Connecticut Women's Hall of Fame exhibition, which grew out of a panel titled ''American Women in Focus . . . Breaking New Ground'' with the help of Hartford College for Women, the University of Hartford and Fleet Bank.
Geena Clonan, the executive director of the Hall of Fame and a friend of the Sugarmans who has been involved in the forum since the early days, said the forum's success may stem from its harkening to old New England town meetings, where neighbors would gather to talk about pressing issues of the day.
''It's the same thing the Mayflower Compact was founded on,'' she said. '' It's the whole idea of communicating once again, analyzing problems and solving them.''