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In Gymnastics Afterglow, Hartford Area Looks To Keep Competing

ZEKE MILLER

July 30, 2009

HARTFORD - Next year's USA Gymnastics national championships will draw top athletes and thousands of fans and an estimated $7.5 million to local businesses, a shot in the arm for a recovering economy and for a downtown looking to expand its profile.

The combined competition and trade show could be the largest special event in recent years in the capital city, with organizers comparing it to the Travelers Championship golf tournament and the Big East women's basketball tournament, with a convention added in.

"We are adding to the resume of the city, showcasing its ability to host major conventions and competitions," said H. Scott Phelps, president of the Greater Hartford Convention & Visitors Bureau.

But the direct economic benefit is less important to Hartford and the region than what could follow an impression that leads to more activity in the future.

"If you have this event, and then you have another, and another, then you have a sustained pattern," said Sandra Johnson, vice president and director of business development at the MetroHartford Alliance. "The experiences that people have here will help attract not just future tournaments, but all types of businesses."

That, at least, is the hope and it's impossible to measure in restaurant meals and turnstile entries.

Without continued gains, said economist Don Klepper-Smith of DataCore Partners in New Haven, the gymnastics championship and similar events generally are beneficial only in the short-term.

"The ideal is that people see Hartford and come back," Klepper-Smith said.

Wednesday's announcement that the sport's largest domestic event, sponsored by Visa, will be held at area venues was the result of months of planning by USA Gymnastics, the convention and visitors bureau, the XL Center and area businesses. As many as 25,000 people are expected during the four days of competition, Aug. 11-14, 2010.

The XL Center, as well as the Chase Arena at the University of Hartford, will be used for the competition, while the Connecticut Convention Center will be used for the USA Gymnastics National Congress and Trade Show an unprecedented combination of resources. In all, the event will use 10,000 hotel room nights throughout the area, stretching the resources of a city that last fall lost a downtown hotel, the Goodwin, because of low bookings.

"In terms of attendees and fan base, from our perspective, the combined competition and trade show will be the largest event we have been a part of," said Michael Costelli, general manager of the convention center.

Chuck Steedman, senior vice president and general manager of the XL Center, called the event "a postcard for the entire city."

"Certainly down the road, we hope securing the Visa Championships drives demand, but we are focused on making this a great championship now," he said.

In Dallas, where this year's championships are being held next month, the event is more routine in the life of the region, but still significant, said Phillip Jones, president and CEO of the Dallas Convention & Visitors Bureau.

"It is a great opportunity for Hartford," he said. "The economic impact will be felt more directly in the smaller city. One of the opportunities that they have is to showcase what is going on in Hartford to the world."

The event signifies Hartford's independence from the University of Connecticut, when it comes to booking major sporting events, said Jay Sloves, of the Farmington-based marketing firm Elkinson + Sloves Inc., who helped plan and promote the Skate America figure skating competition in Hartford in 2006.

"I think it proves what Skate America had started three years ago, that Hartford is not a 'one Husky' town,'" Sloves said. "This is a powerhouse development for Hartford and for Connecticut."

Sloves credits the refurbished convention spaces and infrastructure downtown for making the city more attractive. "Event planners across the country are taking notice," he said.

Steve Penny, president and CEO of USA Gymnastics, said he had no reservations about Hartford's ability to host the competition and trade show.

"All of our partners responded very positively to our decision," he said. "The gyms in the area are excited, and we are confident this will be a success."

But it almost didn't happen, Penny said, because a convention hosted by Seymour-based Basement Systems Inc. was scheduled to occupy 450 hotel rooms that same weekend, disqualifying Hartford from contention. Basement Systems, which is holding its annual gathering next week, agreed to move its 2010 event to a different week.

"We told him we were happy to help, and that we wanted to explore opportunities to be involved in the events," said Daniel F. Fitzgerald, the company's director of marketing.

That, Penny said, marked the beginning of local business participation in the Visa Championships. "They made it all possible," he said.

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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