If it looks like the capital city is awash in a sea of pink and green this weekend, just follow the green. It will trace back to the Connecticut Convention Center, where Hartford is hosting the regional convention of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc., the nation's oldest sorority of college-educated black women.
The 2,500 women, many of whom will sport the organization's familiar salmon-pink and apple-green colors, are spending an estimated $2.5 million in the few days they are visiting Greater Hartford.
But the sistahs are not just buying, they're also giving. The organization on Thursday donated 5,200 books to Hartford public schools and the state Department of Children and Families. Also Thursday, it recognized local black high achievers such as Aetna CEO Ron Williams; former Bridgeport resident Teri Williams, who owns the largest African American-owned bank in the country; Middlebury's Carlton Highsmith, who owns a packaging company that is the state's largest minority-owned business; and mothers' empowerment activist Enola Aird of Cheshire.
Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez welcomed the women, saying their presence and agenda of education, economic development and strong families were appreciated in a city in which, according to Perez, just 10 percent of the city's students go on to a four-year college.
While here, the women are trying to fit in work, play and charitable giving. They went to the play "Fences" at The Hartford Stage Wednesday and attended a cast reception afterward. There was a trip - actually two, but who's counting? - to Mohegan Sun. A step show, a comedian, trips to the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art and shopping excursions were planned.
"It's been wonderful," said Evelyn Sample-Oats of Philadelphia, the sorority's North Atlantic regional director. "People are nice. The city is friendly and warm and the convention center is beautiful. It's a smaller city, but smaller sometimes is good." Next year's regional will be in Philly; last year's was in Atlantic City.
Local sorority members are delighted to have their sisters here.
"It warms my heart to think that [with] this convention center up and running that we can attract the caliber of women from the sorority that I am a proud member of," said Gwendolyn Smith Iloani, a former chairwoman of Hartford's economic development commission and the owner of a city investment firm.
"As I stroll down Trumbull Street and Main Street, I see my sorority sisters purchasing products in restaurants in January, which is not the greatest month for restaurants," she said. "And the economic impact of the millions of dollars being spent in the city is a wonderful thing for me to see as a business owner in downtown Hartford."
Now in its third year, the Connecticut Convention Center is showing that it has appeal to an array of niche audiences. That bodes well for a Hartford region looking to establish itself as a destination point.
To date, the region has been visited by women's faith groups, Muslims, Mary Kay saleswomen, bass fishermen, math and science teachers and nurses, among others.
This year, visitors will include more religious groups, aircraft owners and tree-care specialists.
Hartford is becoming appealing to convention planners because about 23 million people are located within a two-hour drive, said H. Scott Phelps, president of the Greater Hartford Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Accessibility is not a problem, as the sorority sisters can attest. And visitors are finding there's actually fun to be had in the oft-maligned city between Boston and New York.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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