Brennan Haltli can tell you more about wingspans than about the Wadsworth.
One of the approximately 10,000 visitors in Hartford this weekend for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association convention, Haltli was bumped from his downtown hotel and ended up at a spot near the airport. (The Washington, D.C., resident wasn't exactly thrilled.)
He and colleague Sean McCourt were enjoying a cold one at the Arch Street Tavern Friday when I asked what use they'd like to see for the nearby Hartford Times building. The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art announced this week that it has pulled out of plans to relocate to the vacant, venerable building.
"A hotel," piped up Haltli, not needing to explain further.
"Hotel space and retail,"' added McCourt. "There's not a lot to do here."
The now undefined role of the Times building may actually end up being a positive one for downtown development. The need for more hotels and shops has always been pressing. And with the Wadsworth apparently planning to remain solely in its Main Street locale and with a new science center under construction, this fledgling convention city might as well put its attention to providing more lodging and retail for its visitors.
Remember, Hartford - HARTFORD! - beat out Atlantic City for this gathering of aircraft aficionados. The proximity of the state-owned Brainard Airport combined with Bradley International Airport to provide ample landing areas for these conventioneers, many of whom like to fly themselves to the host city.
"In selling Hartford it would be beneficial for us to have additional rooms in proximity to the Connecticut Convention Center," said H. Scott Phelps, president of the Greater Hartford Convention and Visitors Bureau. "Meeting planners like to be connected to the convention center, or as close as possible, for the ease of their attendees."
There are about 1,800 downtown hotel rooms and 6,000 in the region, according to Phelps. Hartford competes for business with cities such as Providence, Milwaukee, Buffalo and Pittsburgh. The pilots are taking up 11 hotels in the Hartford region over three nights.
Kelly Neadle, a barkeep at the tavern, says downtown needs more nearby shopping attractions, men's and women's clothing shops, even a day spa, anything to get people and their dollars circulating. A familiar refrain Neadle hears is: "What is there to do in Hartford?"
Before the Times building can be developed, the much-hyped Front Street project that was supposed to anchor the convention center has to get off the ground. Front Street Developer Bradley Nitkin told me Friday that he's planning for a groundbreaking in the spring and that he's getting a lot of interest from "restaurants and entertainment venues, but we're also talking to traditional retailers as well."
"We're deeply involved in the design process as we speak and we're deeply involved in marketing," Nitkin said. Once Front Street takes shape it may be easier to find a better fit for the Times building.
One idea Nitkin says he's already kicking around is to have the Times building, with its historical bearing, serve as an entrance to a high-rise residential housing development that would be built behind the building, overlooking the Connecticut river. The entrance would feature restaurants, shops and other retail outlets. "Everything is very much in the early exploration," Nitkin said.
If that's so, he may want to pop in at the tavern.
He'd certainly get an earful.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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