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City Steps Into Future

June 3, 2005
By JEFFREY B. COHEN, Courant Staff Writer

A 1,200-person breakfast, a 1,200-person lunch, 550 exhibit booths, a simultaneous meeting of human resources professionals in seminar rooms, and thousands of guests all under one roof marked the official opening Thursday of the $271 million Connecticut Convention Center at the heart of Adriaen's Landing.

And so - with widespread praise and a little traffic confusion - went the first day of the rest of downtown Hartford's life.

When Gov. M. Jodi Rell spoke at the ballroom breakfast hosted by The Courant, she got what may have been the room's first standing ovation.

Rell remembered, she said, the down days in 1997 when hockey left Hartford. "The loss of a major league sports franchise threatened us with a loss of confidence," she said. "It made us feel that there was no future in Hartford."

But 1997 was a time for action, she said, and the building she stood in Thursday was one of the results.

"No one ever thought it could be done," Rell said. "We're here. It's done."

As good vibes from the center's opening filled the space, news of funding for the facility spread from the Capitol not far away.

Earlier this year, the legislature's appropriations committee cut the Capital City Economic Development Authority's budget for the coming fiscal year by $1.8 million - the majority of which would have gone to the Greater Hartford Convention and Visitors Bureau to sell the building to potential users.

On Thursday, state Rep. Denise Merrill, D-Mansfield, a main budget negotiator, said the legislature planned to replace $1 million of that cut after meetings with the authority. "We restored $1 million to their marketing budget because I'm convinced they're going to do a good job with it," she said.

CCEDA spokesman Dean Pagani said that the agency would nevertheless lobby the legislature for full funding, adding that the budget it needs is the budget it asked for.

"Obviously, the state made a huge investment in this facility, and we would hope the legislature doesn't shortchange the building just as it's opening," Pagani said. "That would seem to be a mistake."

A spokesman for the governor's office would not say whether Rell would push for a full restoration of funding, saying only that she wants to work with the legislature "to make certain we have the amount needed to market the convention center effectively."

But the numbers didn't seem to matter much Thursday.

Outside, early morning groundwork at the center continued while construction crews labored at the adjacent Marriott and at a new parking garage across the street. Inside, just before 7 a.m., Brad Davis of WDRC-AM worked the microphone at a table, while developers Len and Mark Wolman stood atop the stairs of one of the entryways, greeting people and troubleshooting.

One escalator wasn't working properly. It was quickly fixed.

After the breakfast, a parade of politicians and convention center types spoke for more than 45 minutes before a crowded room of well-wishers. Throughout, there was hardly a public mention of the man largely credited with making the center a reality - ex-Gov. John G. Rowland, now an inmate in a federal facility in Pennsylvania, jailed on a corruption charge to which he pleaded guilty Dec. 23.

But at least one sign of Rowland was present in the form of Jo McKenzie, his former aide and confidant, who stood close to the podium and worked the crowd.

The real action, though, took place a floor below as Al and Kathy Popowski joined other exhibitors as they filled most, but not all, of the convention center's 140,000-square-foot hall. They brought their year-old laser engraving business from their Seymour home to be among the first to try out the new convention center. But they were really there to expand their company's reach as one of roughly 550 exhibitors at the Connecticut XPO 2005 for Business.

"You're here to get customers for your business," Al Popowski said, adding that the roughly $1,200 he paid for a booth and potentially 8,000 pairs of eyes was a better deal than most advertising schemes he had come across. "That's why I'm here. This is the cheapest way to get known."

It was a business-to-business type event, said organizer Marc P. Sherer of Event Management. It was also a cool place for teenage boys, who ran the aisles getting as much of the giveaway goodies as they could, from stress balls to free cookies and key rings.

By several accounts, the show had few glitches. "We pulled up, got out, went to the booth, everything was set up, we set up [other items], and then we left," Popowski said of his experience Wednesday. "It was very, very easy."

Arnold Berman worked sound and media for the morning breakfast, and he had good things to say.

"The staff is outstanding," he said. "They didn't say no to anything, they worked hard, they dealt with changes. I've never worked in a hotel or convention center where the staff has been that attentive. I swear to you. I'm not blowing hot air at all."

Several attendees mentioned confusion with parking signs in the center's garage, while others, including Al Popowski, said the signage directing folks to the center once they had left the highway needed improvement.

"Obviously, the convention center is still surrounded by a lot of construction activity, so there was a bit of confusion on the roads," Pagani said, "but nothing that hampered the operations at all."

By 5 p.m., the exhibition was to close. Later Thursday evening, the guests would leave the building. And by midnight, the exhibit hall would be cleared so the Friday morning setup for a Saturday gathering of 1,500 scrapbook collectors could begin. On Sunday, an open house will be held for the public from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Visit www.courant.com/convention to view The Courant's convention center special section.

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.
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