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Tens Of Thousands Expected In Hartford For Big East Tournament

Kenneth R. Gosselin

March 04, 2011

As downtown Hartford welcomes athletes, coaches and die-hard fans to this year's Big East Women's Basketball Championship tournament, the growing population of downtown residents stands ready to do a little promotion of its own.

At last year's tournament, downtown dweller Gregg Gorneault got stopped by visitors asking for directions or a suggestion for a good restaurant while walking his dog Mica. He took the opportunity to make the point that, yes, people do live in the central business district.

"It kind of makes you feel like a tour guide and an ambassador to the city, be the smiling face and let people know what's in and around the city," Gorneault said. "It's good for them to realize that people live downtown."

Gorneault expects that the same will happen this year, as an estimated 40,000 visitors flock to the five-day tournament, which tips off Friday at noon and concludes Tuesday, with a final game widely expected to include the University of Connecticut Huskies.

Restaurants and bars have geared up for the event that the city has hosted since 2004, and major hotels such as the Hilton and Marriott are nearly fully booked.

It's good for the city, pumping an estimated $2 million into the economy. For the people who live here, it's an opportunity to welcome crowds to their front door at a moment when the neighborhood, in Gorneault's words, is gaining a voice.

The chance to showcase the city and its attractions to such a large crowd of visitors is an opportunity not to be missed, especially on a weekend, which is typically quieter, said Gorneault, a graduate student and academic adviser at UConn's West Hartford campus who has lived downtown for two years.

"There's a lot worth coming back for, even if they don't have time now," Gorneault said.

On Thursday, busloads of basketball players began arriving, setting the stage for a tournament that is expected to raise typical weekend occupancy of downtown hotels from 40 percent to more than 90 percent, according to the Waterford Group, which owns and operates the Hilton and Marriott.

"The hotels are just jumping," said Michael Van Parys, president of the Greater Hartford Convention & Visitors Bureau. "The hotels are sold out."

While the spike is a one-time pop for hotels, some downtown residents hope that visitors will take a positive impression away with them, especially if they have memories of tougher times following the deep economic downturn of the early 1990s.

"For all the people attending the Big East, some of them maybe spent time earlier in their lives here," said Jason Zwang, who moved downtown a little more than four months ago. "Hopefully they will reconnect with Hartford and come back on the weekends."

Group and individual ticket sales for the tournament are double compared with 2010, while packages, which include admission to all 15 games, are running about the same as last year, according to Big East conference officials.

Restaurateurs say they are ready for the crowds, many altering their hours, either to open earlier or close later. Some eateries and bars that are closed on Sundays will be open this weekend. Still others have designed limited menus to cut down on waits for meals.

"People want to be in and be out," said Albana Bakrina, manager of Zula's Restaurant and Bar.

Bob Colangelo Jr., managing partner at Max Bibo's deli on Trumbull Street, said he plans to double his servers this Saturday and open on Sunday. He also has stocked up on Whoopie pies and the ingredients for Reuben sandwiches — two big sellers during past tournaments.

"It's not bad timing, this tournament," Colangelo said. "This winter was not kind to us. It's a much welcomed event after one of our slowest winters."

The deli closed for two days when there was a parking ban downtown, and the snow piling up for weeks made it difficult to park.

Sixteen restaurants are sponsoring promotions tied into the tournament. CitySteam on Main Street, for instance, is offering a free beer with the purchase of an entrée with a ticket stub. Hook & Ladder, also on Main, is offering 15 percent off a meal with a stub.

Some restaurants have developed a long-running relationship with teams that have returned annually for the tournament. Marquette, for example, has staked out McKinnon's Irish Pub as its home base practically ever since Hartford has hosted the tournament, festooning a portion of the restaurant and bar with banners from the school.

The crowds will mean longer waits for downtown residents who are accustomed to getting served right away when they go out to eat on the weekends. But Tim Ouellette, an information technology consultant and downtown resident for two years, said he'll take it, for all the life it brings to the city.

"A lot of the folks who live downtown work at a lot of those restaurants," Ouellette said. "It's not only good for business but the people who live here."

Suzanne M. Hopgood, a longtime downtown resident, said that visitors to the city also have helped her see the place where she has lived since the mid-1980s with fresh eyes.

"The first time I saw people taking pictures, I said, 'OK,' " Hopgood recalls. "But then you start to see the city through other people's eyes. You look at what they are taking pictures of … the Capitol. … That is really something to see."

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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