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Culinary Institute's Plan Could Come Off Table

January 31, 2006

Plans to convert the dormant Hastings Hotel and Conference Center in Hartford into the new home of the Connecticut Culinary Institute are in doubt again, as the institute's efforts to get state money have proved unsuccessful.

The institute has been hoping for $3.5 million that officials say they need to renovate the facility. The money has been approved by the legislature but has stalled on the desk of Gov. M. Jodi Rell.

"At some point it has to come off the table, and if it's not going to happen, we need to know ... because we need to find a Plan B," said Brooke Baran, an institute spokeswoman. "It's a little bit frustrating to know you have the support of the legislature for a great project in Hartford, when so many other large companies are leaving."

The institute, Baran said, would probably have to shelve its plans for the Hastings "if we don't get a commitment from the state that there will be an allocation of dollars within the next couple of weeks."

The project got a boost last summer with the endorsement from the state legislature. But after a meeting Friday of the State Bond Commission, Rell's budget director conceded that the project isn't a high priority.

Although the legislature puts together a list of many bonding projects, the administration determines which make it onto the commission's agenda each month.

"The amount they want is substantial," budget director Robert Genuario said. "As yet, it has not reached the top of the priority list. We're certainly concerned about the amount of ... the request, given the nature of the project. That's a lot of money for that project."

The Hastings, built in 1983 by Aetna adjacent to its Asylum Hill headquarters, was intended as a training facility with 271 rooms and 55,000 square feet of conference space. Its most recent operators ran the facility as a hotel, closing its doors in 2003, leaving more than 100 people out of work and forcing several other businesses in the building to close.

Last summer, the culinary institute revived a year-and-a-half-old plan to buy the facility and use the space as a replacement for the school's Farmington campus. The plan had been in limbo after a key partner pulled out of the project 10 months earlier.

The project would require new kitchens and a campus-style home for the school.

The institute plans to finance the move with public and private money. The building is listed for sale through CB Richard Ellis at $10 million.

Genuario said the project does not stand out when viewed in the context of the state's obligations for hundreds of millions of dollars for public school construction and other needs.

"As you know, we have been trying to keep control of our overall bonded indebtedness," Genuario said.

But state Sen. Eileen M. Daily, D-Westbrook, who supports the project, called the conversion plan "a wonderful project for the state of Connecticut."

"It's well worth the price tag," said Daily, who chairs the legislature's finance, revenue and bonding committee. "This investment on the part of the state really pales in comparison to some of the huge investments that the state makes, and this is a good, solid, reliable company with an excellent track record."

While waiting for state approval, the institute has continued its process of securing financing, getting construction approvals and planning for its future, Baran said.

"But as the days go by, you become less and less hopeful," she said.

Matt Hennessy, chief of staff for Hartford Mayor Eddie A. Perez, said the city is still supportive of the project as a good investment of state dollars in the city.

"I think you get a big bang for your buck," he said. Hennessy also said that some nonprofit institutions have expressed interest in the facility, but the city prefers a for-profit use that would not be exempt from taxes.

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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