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New Hope By The River

As The Capital City Struggles To Rebound, A $271 Million Centerpiece Opens As ...

May 29, 2005
By KENNETH R. GOSSELIN, The Hartford Courant

In the 1960s, Constitution Plaza was supposed to spur Hartford's sustained economic revival. A decade later, those same hopes were pinned to the Hartford Civic Center.

Now, there's the Connecticut Convention Center.

Will this be the time it really works?|With the convention center at Adriaen's Landing set to open Thursday, it still remains largely unknown whether the economic return will be worth the $271 million that the state has invested in the construction of the convention center.

The center is viewed as a key component in the state's efforts to revitalize the city's downtown area and create the vibrancy that Hartford has long lacked. It is hoped that the convention center - now a highly visible part of the city's skyline - will become a symbol of those efforts and attract more private investment.

There's no question that the convention center will bring tens of thousands more visitors to Hartford in the first year alone, initially spurring the creation of new jobs in the city's hospitality industry. And, local businesses that will serve the center - caterers, event planners and motor-coach companies - will see a significant boost in sales.

But what's unclear is how much of a difference the center will make in the cash registers of downtown shops and restaurants. It also isn't known how far visitors will venture beyond the convention center, or if they will open their wallets as much as some studies suggest.

And despite strong bookings in the first 12 months, there is uncertainty about the future. A recent report from the influential Brookings Institution found that convention demand nationally is weakening but cities across the country continue to build - or expand - convention centers.

Even so, some local entrepreneurs are betting that the convention center, and the adjacent Marriott hotel that will open in August, will create vibrancy and foot traffic downtown.

At the Arch Street Tavern, just across from the convention center, owner Jerry Collins saw his receipts drop off by almost 40 percent in the past year, as construction kicked into high gear. He also smarted from the loss of regulars who worked at Connecticut Natural Gas, whose building was razed to make way for the convention center.

But Collins, who has owned the pub since the late 1970s, says he sees an opportunity in the convention center. He closed in late March for eight weeks and is spending a "couple hundred thousand" for a new kitchen, new booths, a new sprinkler system and other improvements - all in hopes that the convention center will be a catalyst for change. He plans to reopen Tuesday.

The construction continues to take a toll, however. The bridge between Sheldon Street and Columbus Boulevard won't reopen until October at the earliest, according to state officials.

That won't prevent convention center visitors from patronizing the tavern. But it will restrict how easily some customers can reach the bar, Collins says.

Collins said he's realistic in his expectations. He knows more than just the convention center will have to come together before the city will thrive, including the science center and the Front Street retail and residential complex.

"I just want to get my old business back," Collins said.

Exploring Hartford

Collins' bar and restaurant is near the convention site and would be visible to convention center visitors. So chances are good those visitors will find the tavern.

And tourism officials are banking that visitors will cross the wide Columbus Boulevard to visit the rest of downtown.

H. Scott Phelps, president of the Greater Hartford Convention & Visitors Bureau, said most conventioneers visiting a new city want to get out and explore in their free time, not just sit in their hotel rooms.

"You want to get a feel for the city that you're in," Phelps said.

But the connection between the convention center and attractions elsewhere in the city isn't a natural one and will have to be fostered, experts say. Hartford's central business district is less than a mile wide, but visitors still will need to have easily accessible help in locating restaurants, shops and cultural attractions.

How easy it will be to get around the city will leave a strong impression in the minds of conventioneers - and could influence future bookings, experts say.

"Most people attending conventions have a limited block of time to go off and do things," said Vivian K. Elba, vice president of Destination Connecticut, which helps out-of-town groups arrange meetings and conventions.



Elba said it will be crucial for hotel staffs to be knowledgeable about the city and what's available. On the other end, restaurants, cultural attractions and shops also will have to market themselves to capture convention business, Elba said.

"Will they eat at Black-Eyed Sally's? Yes, if they know it's there," Elba said.

In April, the convention and visitors bureau launched a series of workshops and bus tours for hotel employees and others who will directly deal with convention center visitors to educate them about the city's attractions. About 200 attended the first workshop, Phelps said.

It will be particularly crucial for local businesses to capture their share of visitors to the multiday conventions and trade shows. Those events draw outside money to the region that will be spent on hotel rooms, restaurant meals, entertainment and souvenirs.

City Councilman Robert L. Painter has also been meeting with neighborhood leaders to encourage each neighborhood to market its attractions.

According to estimates, at least 51,000 people will attend conventions and trade shows in the first year. They will spend $266 a day over an average 3.6-night stay, based on industry projections.

But Heywood Sanders, author of the Brookings paper, said those estimates are too high for a smaller market such as Hartford, where conventioneers are likely to stay at cheaper hotels and stay shorter amounts of time because some of those attending drive to the convention, rather than fly.

"That data just doesn't seem to work for smaller markets like Hartford," Sanders said.

Gazing Ahead

Although uncertainty swirls around the ultimate economic benefits of the convention center, there have been positive signs.

It is estimated that about 1,500 steelworkers, framers, painters, landscapers and others had work because the center was built. Typically, 300 to 500 workers a day were at the site during peak construction, said Dean Pagani, spokesman for the Capital City Economic Development Authority.

And some of those were Hartford residents steered to the project by the Jobs Funnel.

The Jobs Funnel, a community program designed to direct city residents into construction jobs, helped 72 workers land jobs building the convention center. Most of those were hired for apprentice positions, said Yolanda Rivera, the funnel's program manager.

"To me, that's successful," Rivera said. "And it has allowed us to look beyond construction to post-construction jobs."

The funnel has referred 42 city residents for the full- and part-time jobs being created at the convention center. Altogether, the convention center will employ the equivalent of 70 full-time workers.

As of mid-May, 18 city residents had gotten jobs, and 12 others were being considered, Rivera said.

The hiring is encouraging, but the overall employment boost from the convention center isn't clear.

A feasibility study by the accounting firm KPMG in 2000 said the facility could generate 1,300 to 1,900 jobs statewide in the first five years after opening. No specifics about the jobs were detailed, except for those at the convention center itself.

A portion of the jobs would be directly tied to the convention center, while others would come because of a generally stronger economy, the study says.

Beyond the convention center, the new Marriott, scheduled to open in August, is expected to employ 250.



Some business leaders and economists say the opening could serve as a less tangible, but no less important symbol of Hartford's emerging revitalization.

The convention center will help showcase the city to a wider population of visitors, perhaps piquing the interest of companies seeking office space that is far cheaper to lease than Boston or New York.

"One of the big advantages could be the demonstration effect," said Edward J. Deak, a professor of economics at Fairfield University.

Companies could be looking to establish satellite or back office operations, Deak said, bringing more workers to the area. Several efforts are already underway to boost the financial services employment in the city and the surrounding area.

Some business leaders caution against relying too much on the convention center because it is just one piece of the development puzzle that also includes apartments, condominiums, office space and restaurants.

But city entrepreneurs such as Tony Colon are looking forward to the convention center's opening Thursday.

Seven years ago, Colon enthusiastically named his package store on Charter Oak Avenue in Hartford after the nearby Adriaen's Landing development, taking an immediate stake in the project.

Today, the project still awaits the addition of Front Street and the science center. Colon has sold the package store business, but he still owns a grocery store and the building that houses both businesses.

"I think we're going to have a piece of the business," Colon said. "Too bad I get old too soon. I would have liked to see this when I was younger."

Colon declines to give his age, but he well remembers the crowds drawn by the department stores on Main Street in their heyday. When there are people on the street, store owners see a spike in sales, Colon says.

This week's opening of the convention center "gives you hope," for Hartford, Colon said.

"It's like looking into a crystal ball," he said. "But you have hope."

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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