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