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Is Convention Center Selling?

After Handing Marketing To Private Group, Authority Must Weigh Center's Role In The City

Tom Condon

April 10, 2011

When planning began for a convention center in Hartford in the mid-1980s, the thinking was that the city already had a civic center, hotels, a fine airport and a strong marketing arm, the Greater Hartford Convention & Visitors Bureau. All it needed was the building to become a top-tier convention city.

That effort to build a convention center failed, but a later one, part of the "Six Pillars of Progress" effort promoted by Gov. John Rowland in the late 1990s, yielded the spanking new Connecticut Convention Center, which opened in 2005.

So has it all come together? Is Hartford putting its best foot forward? I'm not sure.

A problem now is that we barely have the Convention & Visitors Bureau. The agency, which traces its origins to 1964, has been decimated. It once had a staff of 16, a budget of $3.2 million, even a Washington office. The budget is now about $800,000 and the staff has been reduced to five. Longtime executive director H. Scott Phelps, a skilled and indefatigable booster of the region, prematurely retired last spring.

Though funding cuts preceded it, the big whack was a decision in late 2009 by the Capital City Economic Development Authority, known as CCEDA, the quasi-public agency that built and oversees the convention center for the state, not to renew its half-million dollar contract with the convention bureau to market the building. The contract was put out to bid and awarded last year to the Waterford Group, the entity that owns the Marriott Hotel adjoining the convention center and some other hotels in the city and region.

There were some complaints at the time that this created the appearance of conflict of interest, but officials insisted that all hotels would get the same consideration. The diminished convention and visitors bureau seeks groups or events that don't need the convention center.

James Abromaitis, executive director of CCEDA, said a reason to consider the change was to streamline the operation. He said that before the change, the convention bureau was selling conventions and meetings that were more than 18 months away and Waterford was marketing meetings within the year-and-a-half period, which he said created some confusion.

Is the change working? It's hard to say. Abromaitis said event-related hotel room reservations are up from about 32,000 in fiscal 2011 to slightly more than 40,000 in fiscal 2012. But some of these were booked earlier, and other data suggests that total room nights on the books have dropped from 2010 to 2011.

Acknowledging that Waterford only became the marketing agent for the convention center on July 1, and business isn't generated overnight, CCEDA must evaluate this change fairly soon. I have nothing against Waterford having the job as long as it's doing it better than the convention bureau did. If not, the deal should be reconsidered.

CCEDA's directors should also look at the mix of events in the building. The convention center seemed to fill a need for meeting space downtown, and draws all sorts of local business and professional gatherings. These help pay the bills, but don't do as much for the city as bigger overnight conventions that engage hotels and restaurants. Is the building judged on how little money it loses or what it does for the Hartford economy? Where is the balance point, and are we at it?

While they're at it, CCEDA might also evaluate its role in Hartford. The authority was created in 1998 to build and oversee the "Six Pillars," that included housing, the G. Fox building conversion, the science center, the civic center upgrade and riverfront improvements, as well as the convention center. Abromaitis was transferred to the state Office of Policy and Management last year and given the added responsibility of overseeing Rentschler Field.

The only remaining construction work from the initial mandate will be two or three more phases of Front Street, some combination of housing, reuse of the former Hartford Times building and development of Arch Street. The 60,000-square-foot entertainment/retail portion of Front Street was finished last year, and is expecting its first tenant, a movie theater, in the fall. There's been some grumbling because the complex is empty; I think it will fill up. You can do more with buildings than with parking lots.

But what of CCEDA beyond this? Collecting rents, etc., could be passed on to another agency. If CCEDA is to continue, it ought to take an aggressive role, in partnership with the city and private sector, in infill development in the downtown area. Hartford doesn't need another big bang building, it needs a lot of smaller residential and commercial buildings that fill in the blanks and recapture the city from its too-aggressive retrofitting for cars.

Over time, this would present a city that was more attractive to conventioneers, and make the marketing job that much easier for whomever is doing it.

Tom Condon can be reached at tcondon@courant.com.

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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