When the plan to bring a new high-end grocer to the ground floor of downtown's newest apartment tower was unveiled last September, Mayor Eddie A. Perez called it "a big sign of confidence in retail in downtown Hartford."
Almost a year later, the plans to bring the Wethersfield-based Bliss Market to Hartford 21 have collapsed - a victim of doubled construction costs and conflicting egos, people involved said.
But Lawrence R. Gottesdiener - downtown's largest landowner, the operator of the Hartford Civic Center, and the owner of the Hartford 21 apartments - says he is moving on. He is building a market where the Bliss would have been on his own - paying $2 million for construction that's already underway, buying the necessary equipment, and looking for someone to run the place.
"Larry realizes how important this is to downtown Hartford and to the revitalization of the city," said Chuck Coursey, Gottesdiener's spokesman. "Instead of retreating, he's stepping up and assuming all of the financial risk. ... At the end of the day, we're going to have an upscale market."
And Perez said Wednesday that he doesn't think the change in plans is a commentary on the status of the downtown retail market.
"They made their decisions based on their own financial situation," Perez said of Bliss. "[Gottesdiener is] going to have to stay at it and work a little harder. [But] every time Gottesdiener has made a commitment to me he's been able to honor it."
Optimism about the city's resurgence has long been tempered by talk that new, resident-oriented retailers have been slow to set up shop downtown. Boosters like Gottesdiener and his company, Northland Investment Corp., argue that retail will follow residents who are now starting to take new downtown addresses.
Coursey says a year after its opening, the tower is roughly 50 percent filled and is on track to be fully leased within two years of opening.
According to Bliss owner John DeFrino, Gottesdiener's team was frustrated with DeFrino's design process and hired designers of their own. But the estimates that Gottesdiener's people came up with doubled the cost of construction - from $1 million to $2 million, DeFrino said.
Together, they whittled down the cost overrun to $700,000, DeFrino said.
"They wanted me to pick up half of it," he said. "My break-even point would have been close to $100,000 a week. I didn't feel that kind of space could generate that kind of income."
DeFrino said the uncertainty of building a new market in an urban setting was hard to grapple with. "Larry was looking for me to step up and say, `I'll take control' ... I was looking for Larry to say, `If things don't work out, we'll be behind you 100 percent,'" he said.
"And we never got to that point," DeFrino said. "Our egos got in the way."
DeFrino said he hadn't soured on Northland or Hartford, and offered to help. He says a different operator could be successful.
"I believe they could make it there, but they're going to have to work their butts off," he said.
Coursey said construction will be complete by Thanksgiving and that Northland is talking with potential market operators.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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