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Task At Hilton: Make Deadline
December 17, 2004
By KENNETH R. GOSSELIN, Courant Staff Writer

Walk through the Hilton in downtown Hartford these days, and you leave shaking your head.

The lobby, planned as the centerpiece of the $25 million, top-to-bottom renovation, is still stripped bare, with gaping openings in the floor for as yet unbuilt elevator shafts.

And this place is going to be ready on March 1 to check in guests?

The developers - The Waterford Group - confidently say yes, and a lot of people are counting on them: The Hilton is the host hotel for the Big East women's basketball tournament, also in the beginning of March.

"You should have seen it two weeks ago," said Mark Wolman, president of Waterford's construction operations. "Now the walls are going up and the furniture is starting to arrive. And you'd be surprised how much happens the last month."

Waterford's gutting of the 33-year-old Hilton on Trumbull Street is the most ambitious of three hotel renovations in downtown Hartford that are in the works or completed.

The spate of hotel redevelopment comes as the city's Adriaen's Landing convention center nears its June opening. Hotel owners are counting on bookings from conventiongoers and a resurgence in business travel following the Sept. 11 attacks.

On Asylum Street, the new, 96-room Holiday Inn Express opened in January in the former Ramada Inn after a $3 million renovation. And in the next block, work continues on converting the old Bond Hotel into a 110-room Homewood Suites extended-stay hotel, at a cost of $4 million to $6 million.

In addition, cosmetic makeovers are set at both The Goodwin Hotel and the Crowne Plaza.

The renovations at the Hilton and elsewhere are a sign that many believe the state-backed Adriaen's Landing development with its mammoth convention center will spur on the city's economy and vitality, said Suzanne Hopgood, president of The Hopgood Group, a hotel consulting firm in Hartford.

"The whole idea behind the convention center is that it be a catalyst," Hopgood said.

Ever since the Hilton closed nine months ago, the project has been on a tight timeline, imposed by an agreement with the city.

Originally, the hotel was supposed to reopen Dec. 31. But once work began, it was clear that deadline wouldn't be met because the renovations needed were more extensive than first anticipated, said Len Wolman, Waterford's chief executive and Mark Wolman's brother.

Now, as the new March 1 opening quickly approaches, 100 or so workers are framing, wiring and installing in two shifts during the week, some also coming in on the weekends.

There is gray dust everywhere, left over from earlier demolition. Electrical wire hangs in bunches, waiting to be connected to outlets.

"The box of the building was fine," Len Wolman said. "But there were some operational challenges."

It quickly became clear, for instance, that the outdated heating and cooling system would have to be replaced. Individual heating and cooling units in each room were torn out and are being replaced with a duct system that resembles central air.

Although demolition and installing new systems have occupied much of the construction so far, the Wolmans promise a lighter, brighter look for the hotel.

Their designers have chosen beiges and creams for guest rooms, a stark contrast to the old darker reds and mauves.

Guest rooms will go for between $189 and $239 a night for double occupancy and include high-speed Internet access.

On a recent tour, the Wolmans showed off the Hilton's new presidential suite, which is still under construction. The 2,500-square-foot suite on the 22nd floor - complete with oversize Jacuzzi and views of the state Capitol - is being shaped from six former guest rooms.

Get ready to open your wallet, though: The suite will go for between $339 and $600 a night, depending on the time of year.

"Elton John will now have a place to stay in Hartford," Len Wolman jokes.

Rock stars are accustomed to luxurious accommodations.

And when John played a multi-night run in Hartford a couple of years ago, he snubbed local lodgings and instead commuted to Boston after each show to sleep at the Ritz.

The Hilton has been marketing itself almost from the time the renovations began and now has bookings as far out as 2007. It also hopes to build a following for a meeting and conference business in newly-renovated space.

Far below the guest rooms, the stripped-down lobby doesn't look like much right now. But the Wolmans promise the hotel entrance will become the focal point of the new Hilton.

Starting from the street, guests will now step out curbside under a new steel-and-glass canopy.

New revolving doors will lead to a lobby with a contemporary-style fireplace flanked by bookshelves.

A ground-floor restaurant also will be expanded, bringing it closer to Trumbull Street. The restaurant will combine an ecletic mix of Asian fusion and deli-style takeout. Both the restaurant and a bar will have entrances from the lobby and the street.

"Before, there wasn't much sense of arrival," Len Wolman said. "This is intended to make a statement."

When Waterford took over the Hilton project a year ago, controversy swirled around the hotel.

Hilton was threatening to pull its name because former owner MeriStar Hospitality hadn't kept up the building.

A prospective buyer promising a major makeover was found. But the buyer - The Procaccianti Group - was a nonunion company that wanted to close the hotel and dismiss its unionized workforce.

Hartford Mayor Eddie A. Perez stepped in to exercise the city's right of refusal to block the sale. Perez then picked Waterford as the redeveloper. Waterford also wanted to close the hotel but they signed an agreement to honor the Hilton's existing union contract.

A union organizer now says he expects "virtually all" the housekeepers, servers and bartenders and front desk personnel to return.

The contract with the city also called for stiff fines if construction wasn't complete by Dec. 31: $1,000 a day for the first 30 days, then $2,000 a day thereafter.

City officials say Waterford will avoid any fines if the Hilton opens March 1 because the contract also has a 60-day grace period built into it.

Matt Hennessey, Perez's chief of staff, says the mayor is confident the hotel will open on time. And despite its appearance, the Wolmans say 60 percent of the renovations are now complete, including some upper-floor rooms.

Waterford, Hennessey said, has a good track record, too: It redeveloped the historic Richardson building on Main Street into a Marriott Residence Inn, the first hotel construction in the city in a decade. They are also the master developer of Adriaen's Landing and heading construction of the new Marriott at the riverfront complex.

And then there is the Big East tournament.

"There is plenty of incentive for them to be ready," Hennessey 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.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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