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MetLife Shuffle Taking Shape

Boost Or Blow In Store For City

January 20, 2007

Hartford could be a big winner - or major loser - as MetLife looks to buy an office building either in the city or in Bloomfield to house more than 2,000 employees from three separate locations.

MetLife Inc. confirmed Friday that it wants to combine 1,310 employees now in Hartford's CityPlace I with 450 in Glastonbury and about 250 in Rocky Hill.

The New York-based insurer wants them all in one place - either in Hartford or Bloomfield - and is considering CityPlace I, among other buildings, for purchase.

The company is also considering CIGNA Corp.'s "South Building" in Bloomfield, and at least two other unidentified buildings in Hartford.

MetLife's decision could mean an economic development bonanza or bust for Hartford in its ongoing fight to burnish its image. A loss of 1,310 jobs would offset some previous good employment news from Aetna and St. Paul Travelers Cos., and could erase recent gains in downtown office leasing.

Travelers plans to add about 500 jobs in Hartford and more than 100 others in Windsor over two years, and Aetna expects to move 3,600 workers from Middletown to Hartford by 2010.

If MetLife chooses Hartford for its consolidated home, the city would gain about 700 more jobs. Bloomfield has nothing to lose and stands to gain more than 2,000 jobs.

The city and town won't have to hold their breath too long. MetLife expects to make a decision within a month.

There's already a sigh of relief for the region, because MetLife was considered a flight risk based on its promise when buying Travelers Life & Annuity. MetLife would only commit to keeping 1,310 jobs in Hartford for one year after buying the company on July 1, 2005.

MetLife's decision to remain in Greater Hartford and potentially grow here counters previous fears that the company would lay off more people or leave altogether.

"This demonstrates we're committed to the Greater Hartford area and we're here to stay," said MetLife spokesman John Calagna.

The company is moving quickly because its leases at 825 Brook St. in Rocky Hill and at Glastonbury Corporate Center Building 2 expire at the end of this year. The lease at CityPlace is up in October 2008.

MetLife wants to acquire one building with about 500,000 square feet - a little more than the 477,000 square feet it occupies now in the three locations.

"I'm delighted to hear of a potential increase of jobs, as reflected in the square footage" MetLife is seeking, said R. Nelson "Oz" Griebel, president and chief executive of the MetroHartford Alliance.

Griebel isn't taking sides on whether MetLife should choose Hartford or Bloomfield.

"We want a vibrant core city," and "the more feet on the street" the better, Griebel said. But wherever the company lands, it's a "foundation on which to grow more jobs," he said.

Hartford Mayor Eddie A. Perez could not be reached for comment Friday on what the city might be doing to keep the 1,310 MetLife jobs and get 700 more.

However, Sarah Barr, the city's communications director, issued a statement saying, "The Mayor's Office and the Department of Development Services continue to reach out to MetLife on this issue because it continues to be our goal to maintain and grow jobs in Hartford."

Calagna said MetLife isn't seeking any state or local aid or tax breaks to buy a building and consolidate its local workforce.

Bloomfield officials are thrilled that 2,000 more people might come to work there.

"We'd love to have them," said Bloomfield Mayor Sidney Schulman. "It will add to the quality of life in town."

The town, Schulman said, has been getting new restaurants and housing and the additional workers could help the economy.

"We will make every attempt to encourage them to come to Bloomfield," said Deborah Davis, Bloomfield's economic development director. "We are extremely receptive and look forward to communicating with them."

Bloomfield's director of planning, Tom Hooper, said it would be good to have more than one company at CIGNA's Bloomfield campus. He noted there had been fears that CIGNA, which embarked on a redevelopment program for its acreage in the late 1990s, might leave town.

CIGNA has been seeking to lease or sell its South Building, which has nearly 500,000 square feet and could probably house about 2,000 workers, said company spokesman Joseph Mondy. CIGNA is using the building as "swing space" to house employees while its Wilde Building is renovated.

One possibility is that MetLife could buy the South Building and move its Rocky Hill and Glastonbury employees there at the end of the year, leasing other space in the building to CIGNA.

The Wilde building will hold 4,200 employees when the work is done, Mondy said. The Wilde and South buildings combined currently have about 3,800 employees, he said.

The South Building had a market value of $61 million, based on an Oct. 1, 2004 assessed value of $42.7 million, said Bloomfield Assessor Walter E. Topliff Jr.

CityPlace I could be sold for between $72 million and $104 million, or $90 to $130 a square foot, according to commercial brokers. Opened in 1983, it soars 38 stories above downtown Hartford and encompasses more than 800,000 square feet. CityPlace is owned by CityPlace Limited Partnership, based in New York.

MetLife occupies 373,000 square feet in CityPlace I, on floors two through 12 and 15 through 20, Calagna said.

"Clearly, it's the premier building in downtown Hartford," said Jay Wamester, a broker at commercial real estate firm Colliers Dow & Condon in Hartford. "CityPlace would be right there with State House Square."

Calagna said MetLife is considering two Hartford buildings in addition to CityPlace but wouldn't name them. Brokers doubt the buildings are in the central business district, saying it lacks any others with the 500,000 square feet MetLife is seeking other than State House Square, which is fully leased and already under contract to be sold.

One possibility outside the central district, brokers said, is the old Connecticut Mutual building on Garden Street. It was recently bought by investors and is set for a multimillion-dollar makeover.

If MetLife did move from Hartford and vacate CityPlace - half the tower - it would erase all the recent gains in the downtown commercial real estate market. Travelers' recent lease of 300,000 square feet at State House Square and One Financial Plaza - the "Gold Building" - was seen as a boon, pushing down the office vacancy rate for prime properties in the central business district.

"It would be one step forward, two steps back," Wamester said.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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