Steady Flow Of Out-Of-Towners Into The City Seen As What Will Make
Or Break Adriaen's Landing
May 29, 2005
By JEFFREY B. COHEN, Courant Staff Writer
For two long decades of starts, stops and sputters, the idea of
a successful convention center in Hartford was a convention center
that actually existed.
Now, the facility is funded. The building is up. And in four short
days, the Connecticut XPO 2005 for Business will mark the official
opening of the jewel at the heart of the Adriaen's Landing redevelopment
The first success is achieved.
So now it's time to look forward, convention center backers say.
As this part of the city morphs from a construction zone to a convention
zone, as thousands of out-of-towners prepare to visit, as the city
prepares for those visitors and as the business of conventions, banquets
and trade shows becomes a daily reality, it's time to refocus the
question and ask:
What will "success" mean
from now on?
For the state, success starts with the numbers.
In development lingo, the convention
center is called a "loss
That is, the building and its operation will, by design, lose money:
The convention center will cost roughly $5 million a year to operate,
and it will make about $3 million from rental, event services, food
and beverage and other fees. The state's Capital City Economic Development
Authority, the agency that is in charge of Adriaen's Landing, is
projecting a $2.5 million deficit for the center's first 13 months
One small way that the development
authority and the Waterford Group, which will run the convention
center, have decided to gauge their success is in hard numbers:
If Waterford can make the center less of an operational "loser" from
the financial perspective, it will make more money.
But that's all academic, convention
backers say. To strictly look at what those in the industry call "direct revenue" as
a measure of the facility's success would be to miss the point -
a "loss leader" such as the convention center isn't intended
to make exhibit halls full of money.
"What we're looking for is the building to do what it's designed
to do - house conventions when the predominant population are people
coming from somewhere else," said James McCarvill, who works
not in Hartford but in Providence as the head of the Rhode Island
Convention Center Authority. His operation, just a decade old, faces
much the same challenges as Hartford's. "If it were just about
the direct revenue, you'd never do it."
Instead, convention centers are supposed to be the economic engines
that draw visitors who will stay in hotels, eat in restaurants and
buy in shops, leaving behind their out-of-state money and tax dollars
when they go. The development authority estimates that the state
could get more than $5 million in tax revenue the first year alone,
more than offsetting the building's operational loss on paper. Whether
that happens will be one small way of judging the building's short-term
The development authority will
have some goals of its own. First, even though the convention center
is a "loss leader" and
is expected to lose money, the authority still needs the legislature
to find the $2.5 million to fill the hole in its operating budget.
Also, the authority has to make sure it doesn't lose the funding
it needs to market the convention center.
According to state budget documents, Gov. M. Jodi Rell granted the
agency's more than $5 million request for the 2006 fiscal year. Of
that, $2.5 million was for marketing the new center; the legislature's
appropriations committee reduced that figure by $1.5 million. That
reduction, if not changed in budget negotiations, could threaten
the public profile of the convention center, not to mention the existence
of H. Scott Phelps' Greater Hartford Convention and Visitors Bureau
- which depends on development authority funding.
Bringing In Business
Ben Seidel, executive director of the convention center, gets up
from his desk and grabs his calculator, the kind with the roll of
paper attached at the top. He starts running numbers.
He's trying to make a point about
the importance of "stacking" to
the building's success: finding and booking the right mix of events
to maximize both operating revenue and citywide economic impact.
To prove his point, he punches away on his calculator. He could
do a local fundraiser and bring in $240,000 in sales revenue to the
center in eight hours. Not a bad take.
On the other hand, he could do a full-size, national convention
that would bring in only around $100,000 in direct revenue to the
facility - but its guests could leave between $8 million and $10
million in cash in the city.
Putting the calculator down with a thud, Seidel raises his eyebrows.
"It's a no-brainer," he
A 2000 study by the consulting firm KPMG set the benchmarks for
bookings: 32 conventions and trade shows, 10 consumer shows, 35 banquets
and receptions, 20 other events and 70 meetings - a total of 167
events in the first year alone.
As of April 22, the center was forecasting 200 events: 25 conventions
and trade shows, 15 consumer shows, 40 banquets and receptions, 20
other events and 100 meetings. But while the total number of events
forecast for the first operating year exceeds the KPMG goals, it's
the mix, not the number, of events that will make the convention
center a success. And whether the first year's mix - with fewer than
targeted conventions that make broad use of the city's hotels - will
generate the type of citywide benefit Seidel and others are hoping
for remains to be seen.
Timothy Shea, the development
authority's acting assistant director, said finding that balance
is "the million-dollar question."
"The numbers are the numbers," Shea said. "If
they're not doing their job in terms of bringing in business to
the building, that will be the strongest indicator. ... But we
don't have any reason to believe that will happen."
The City Connection
But that's all spreadsheets and wonk talk.
For those who call the city home, the building that is their newest,
most recognizable feature has to bring other successes in its wake.
One very concrete way to judge the building's success will be to
see if its neighbor - the retail and entertainment district formerly
known as Front Street - is complete.
"Three years from now, if the entertainment and retail district
is built and succeeding, I think in large measure, its success could
be attributed to the convention center," said John Palmieri,
the city's director of development services. "It doesn't have
to happen, but I think it's an important measurement."
Taking a step back from Adriaen's Landing, Mayor Eddie A. Perez
and others agree that for the building to be more than a dollars-and-cents
success for the city, the two will have to be better integrated.
And that means implementing the long-talked-about circulator bus
to take convention center visitors to other parts of the city, he
"We're now in our second phase, and I still think a downtown
circular to make sure we have easy access to public transportation
is the key," Perez said, adding that security and neighborhood
aesthetics are also priorities.
Bernadine Silvers, president of the Sheldon/Charter Oak neighborhood
group, agreed, saying that the convention center cannot be a success
if it exists in a vacuum.
"It's not going to be successful if the only thing that it
does is have people come to that little geographic area," she
If people want Italian food, there should be a way for them to get
to Franklin Avenue, she said. Hispanic food, Park Street. And so
on. And there must be initiatives in place to help businesses in
those areas adapt to the changing clientele, she said.
State Sen. John Fonfara, D-Hartford, has pride in the city, but
sees a lot of work left to be done to make the city a success for
those who come to it, leave their money here, and go back home. What
will they tell their friends of Hartford? he asked.
"For it to succeed, in my opinion, Hartford has to be a much
different city than it is today," he said. "I know this
is going to sound critical of the city that I've lived in all my
life and that I love ... but as it stands now, our face is a little
"The second chapter hasn't been written," Fonfara said,
adding that the state needs to be less "myopic" and make
sure it makes good on its convention center investment. "And,
maybe more importantly, it hasn't even been articulated by the appropriate
Finally, for Phelps, the guy who has been waiting for more than
two decades for these days to come, it will take the commitment of
the entire state - its politicians, its professionals, its people
- to make the convention center an enduring success.
"It will be hard to be totally successful unless we have the
buy-in from the region," he said, saying that those in and around
Hartford have to take pride in Hartford. People in the region need
to rethink how they view Hartford and accentuate its positives, Phelps
said. Then, they need to help sell the city to the regional and national
groups they belong to, he said.
"Now we've got to make this work, and we've got to work hard
at it," Phelps said.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at