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Playing To Her Strengths

October 27, 2006
By Courant

Annette Sanderson of Windsor is executive director of the Capital City Economic Development Authority, the quasi-public agency charged with managing state investment in the revitalization of Hartford.

Q. You're head of the agency that is overseeing Adriaen's Landing, the ambitious set of development projects geared toward revitalizing downtown. How does your background meld with this job?

A. I was born and raised in the North End of Hartford, attended Hartford public schools and graduated with high honors from Weaver High School. I graduated from Amherst College and the UConn School of Law. I liked the idea of public service and had an interest in finance, so I took a position at the state treasurer's office and served as executive assistant to two treasurers. When an opening was created in the real estate investment division at that office, I took that position and held it for eight years.

I then worked as a vice president for CIGNA Investment Management for four years. While I was on maternity leave in 1999, CCEDA was created, and I accepted the job of assistant director and legal counsel.

Q. Brendan Fox was the first executive director of CCEDA; he'd worked for then-Governor Rowland, and was a political appointee at a time when the agency was building its support base. The next director, Chuck Sheehan, an engineer, oversaw several major construction projects, including the Connecticut Convention Center. As the third executive director, how would you describe your particular focus?

A. My focus has been on moving the project forward, specifically the convention center during its implementation phase. I've been the key person at CCEDA with regard to negotiating the real estate deals. It made sense for me and for the board because the deals, particularly Front Street, were still in the negotiating phases. I'm moving forward on the overall implementation, but also involved in the details, down to how the carpets look and how comfortable the chairs are.

Q. The convention center has completed its first year in operation. How did it go?

A. There were 362 events, and we met our targets in every area: conventions, trade shows, consumer shows and meetings. What has been a surprise is the number of meetings, corporate meetings, which was much higher than we'd projected. The 362 events surpassed the industry benchmark of 167 that was created for us by [a consultant], comparing us to similar facilities in similar markets.

Q. Some say that, at 540,000 square feet, the convention center is too large to be efficient. Is it ever filled to capacity?

A. Yes. The recreational vehicle show and the boat show each had between 15,000 and 20,000 attendees in the exhibition hall. We can accommodate groups from 20 people to 20,000 people, and we book smart. Obviously it doesn't make sense to open this facility for a meeting for 20 people, so what we've tried to do is to work with groups to have as much going on over as few days as possible, and this helps us to keep our expenses at a minimum.

Q. Earlier this year, labor issues with regard to potential unionizing led the United Church of Christ to pull their 2007 conference from the convention center. How is the labor situation today?

A. Let me be clear. It has always been our position that the employees should determine their own destiny. We have always supported the employees' right to an election. There has never been anyone at CCEDA implying that we don't want a union, and an election would be the way for them to determine if that is what they want.

Q. There were long delays in the Front Street project coming together, but the deal now appears to be firm: 115 housing units and 60,000 square feet of retail and entertainment space. When will the work on that 6-acre parcel be completed?

A. If you haven't seen some work there before this interview is in print, you'll see it within days. We're looking at mid-to-late 2008 for completion. Though some people think this deal took very long, they should understand that Front Street is truly a private-public partnership between the city, the state and the developers. With that many parties, these deals take time.

Q. Developer Bradley Nitkin says the dining and shopping venues will be "first-class," so should we assume that the apartment rentals will be costly? Also, Hartford21 has 262 new apartments, so how confident are you that there is enough demand for upscale city dwelling in Hartford?

A. The Front Street apartments will be market-rate housing that will support market demand.

Prior to Trumbull on the Park, the first CCEDA housing project, 30 years had passed since there was new housing built in Hartford. Trumbull on the Park is doing well, and Hartford21 is in the lease-up stage. I was there for a meeting two weeks ago, and I saw people coming in off the street looking for tours. That project will lease up, and we're quite certain that there'll be a demand for the units at Front Street, as well. In 1999 and 2000, we had housing studies conducted, and they all illustrated a shortage of up to 1,000 units of market-rate housing downtown.

Q. You've been executive director of CCEDA for the last year, yet you've been out of the limelight in terms of press coverage. Why is that?

A. It's been my choice. My goal has been to make these deals work, and I've been most effective doing that behind the scenes. We've always had spokespeople, and I don't feel the need to be that official spokesperson. I've been the main negotiator, and that's where I've been most comfortable working.

Q. Over the next two years, as these projects come to fruition, what will be your greatest challenge?

A. Overcoming some of the negative perceptions about Hartford. I grew up here, and we used to dress up to come downtown on the bus. Walking through downtown now, you see what we call "feet on the street": the students from the Community College, people having lunch at Morton's, students at the Culinary Institute. I left corporate America to do this, to be part of this overall revitalization. Hartford is the city I was born and raised in, a city that I love.

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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