As he parked cars for three years in the lot behind the Bond Hotel in downtown Hartford, Moustafa Akl heard it all at least three times before: The building was about to reopen as a Hilton Homewood Suites.
Each time, the opening was pushed back.
Now, the management of the Asylum Street property insists that it will open as a 116-suite hotel on Nov. 8 after $5 million in renovations that took four years to complete.
The hotel, which would cater to extended-stay travelers, says it already has bookings into 2008. It held a job fair on Monday and just needs Hilton's final sign-off to open.
Still, Akl was left to wonder Wednesday: "Is this the last word?"
If it is, the opening of the hotel would end a tortured, seven-year saga to fully redevelop the historic, 12-story building, rivaling some of the longest-to-complete and troubled projects in the city's history.
In 2005, city officials grew so frustrated with the slow progress on the building - the first proposal was for upscale apartments - that it pulled tax breaks granted when the property was acquired by the current owner in 2000.
The one bright spot was the renovation of the former ballroom atop the building into a banquet venue.
The $900,000 renovation, handled by the family that owns Ann Howard's Apricots restaurant in Farmington, was finished in 2001, even as construction on the rest of the building languished.
The ballroom, capitalizing on views of Bushnell Park, quickly gained popularity for weddings, business luncheons and community events. With the opening of the Homewood Suites, the Howard family intends to resurrect plans for a restaurant on the ground floor, something it originally intended to do, but postponed.
"We still think this building has a lot of potential," said Joe Howard III, who manages the ballroom. "There's a lot of restaurants and nightclubs in this area."
Although Homewood Suites is designed as "extended-stay" lodging for business travelers and those who are relocating, tourism officials see the addition of more rooms as a boon in the city's quest to attract larger groups to its convention center.
Those groups often look to book their events at venues that have enough hotels within walking distance or, at most, a short shuttle ride away, said H. Scott Phelps, head of the Greater Hartford Convention & Visitors Bureau, which opened a Washington, D.C., office last year to attract larger conventions to Hartford.
"Anytime you can add to the inventory, that's a good thing," Phelps said.
The opening of the Homewood Suites would add a second extended-stay hotel to the city. The operators of the Residence Inn by Marriott on Main Street, open since 2000, say there is enough room in the city for both hotels.
According to the convention and visitors bureau, the average occupancy among the six downtown hotels so far this year is in the mid-60 percent range. Occupancy at some individual hotels is much higher, according to the bureau. Among the six hotels, not including Homewood Suites, there are about 1,750 rooms.
Michael Van Parys, who heads sales at the bureau, said overall downtown hotel occupancy levels are still below the optimal high-60 percent or low-70 percent range.
Even though Homewood Suites will add more hotel rooms downtown, that won't damage efforts to increase occupancy because it will be a new option for travelers, some observers said.
"The more people that stay downtown for an extended period of time, the better it is for the city," said Terry Bickhardt, president of the Waterford Hotel Group, which owns the Residence Inn downtown.
Homewood Suites would be a "limited service" hotel because it won't offer room service. Typically, rooms will run $199 and above for an overnight stay. High-speed Internet access is included in the room charge. Parking will be extra.
Monday's job fair at the hotel drew 300 applications for about 35 jobs, General Manager Carol M. Sikora said.
During a tour of the hotel Wednesday, Sikora said Homewood Suites had considered incorporating the Bond name into the new hotel's name but ultimately decided against it.
"The Bond name is known in this area, but when you go outside, it isn't," Sikora said.
Homewood Suites markets broadly and tries to tie its name to the geographic area where their hotels are located, Sikora said. So, the name of the new hotel will be "Homewood Suites Hartford Downtown."
There will be plenty of nods to the historic Bond in the new hotel, however. Sikora said Homewood has acquired pieces of silver flatware, old reservation cards and newspaper articles chronicling the hotel's history. They will be displayed in mounted shadow boxes near the entrance lobby, she said.
The Bond opened modestly in 1913, its original structure rising just six stories above Asylum Street. The hotel's heyday came in 1921 with the addition of the 12-story west wing, an impressive height for the times and a symbol of the era's optimism.
In the 1920s, the ballroom was the place in Hartford to see and be seen in. During the war years, the Bond became a hub for servicemen, its ballroom given over for money-raising banquets and war bond rallies.
The Bond's popularity waned in the 1950s, however, as it was challenged by the newer Statler Hilton. In 1965, the building was purchased by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford, and for many years was used for the St. Francis Hospital School of Nursing.
Troubles with the building's renovation surfaced after it was purchased in 2000 by Robert A. Danial's Morgan Reed Group, a New York developer.
Danial hired a developer to convert the Bond into luxury apartments, but the developer ran out of money and the project collapsed.
In 2003, developer Sam Chang took over the project, this time for a hotel.
Sikora said Wednesday that the work moved slowly because the building was old and there were unexpected obstacles, such as moving a standpipe.
For a time, the project was shut down by the state health department because asbestos needed to be removed.
There also were changes in contractors and partners in the project, she said.
"But we're here now," Sikora said. "So watch out, Hartford!"
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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