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Former Broker Sees Brighter Future For City

August 1, 2006
By MAYA RAO, Courant Staff Writer

When Bobsie Ness was a commercial real estate broker, she played a role in selling or leasing space in every major building in downtown Hartford, some two and three times over, during the 1980s and 1990s.

Her career survived - and flourished - despite a devastating statewide recession in the early 1990s. Before Ness left the office leasing business two years ago, she saw leasing recover, and now, she says there are other signs that Hartford is on course for a true revitalization.

"The trickle-down effect from all the residential units being built is the restaurant boom - there are all these nice restaurants, and there are more feet on the street," Ness said. "We've heretofore been a 9-to-5 city. ... I think with the convention center and all the new restaurants, there's a new appeal to a lot of individuals."

And news last week that The St. Paul Travelers Cos. is adding 500 workers downtown during the next two years and taking on more space is even more encouraging, Ness said.

Having moved to Hartford in 1972 and having begun work as a leasing agent in 1985, Ness was an observer of Hartford's economic landscape long before the recent uptick in downtown's fortunes. As the only prominent female commercial real estate broker in Hartford until a few years ago, Ness forged a reputation, first at Cushman & Wakefield and later at CB Richard Ellis, for being open and forthright with clients and aggressively securing business transactions.

Since 2004, Ness has been general manager and chief operating officer of Marriott ExecuStay, a provider of temporary corporate housing, in New England.

"I've always seen myself as one of Hartford's biggest cheerleaders," Ness said one recent afternoon in her office on Weston Street. "I feel really proud I became a part of it in some way."

Yet Ness' assortment of professional awards and accomplishments belie the incidental origins of her career: When a divorce left Ness with a young daughter to raise, she became a leasing agent, at first out of necessity.

Ness was trained as a dental hygienist at the University of Pennsylvania, and later earned a bachelor's degree in biology from the University of Hartford. Ness had been taking pre-medical classes at the time, but had to abandon her dream of becoming a doctor to support herself.

Ness, 56, worked for several years as a leasing agent at Century Development in Hartford - the first building she was responsible for leasing was Hartford Square North, the so-called "Candy Cane Building" - before she joined the prominent firm Cushman & Wakefield. The switch came at the height of the real estate frenzy in the late 1980s.

"You were put at a desk, and there was the cost for each desk, phone and the office space. You had to produce over and above that just to keep your seat. ... There was a lot of pressure," Ness recalled. "It's not for most women."

But in a field where contacts are key, Ness had an edge: the numerous friendships she had developed long before she ever set foot in the office.

A few years after she entered the market, when Connecticut's economy tanked and little leasing was going on, Ness reached out to her contacts in the banking industry and sold foreclosed properties while at Cushman. Ness estimates that Hartford lost about half of its commercial brokers in the lean years of the early 1990s.

"Rental rates dropped dramatically. ... Buildings were sold for pennies on the dollar. What drove tenants out of the city were high expenses and taxes and parking, and so there was a flight to the suburbs," Ness said.

In 1999, the managing director of the Hartford office of the rival firm CB Richard Ellis recruited Ness. By then, her reputation had soared, particularly after she brokered a deal to lease 250,000 square feet - the largest office deal of 1997 - at 280 Trumbull St. to CIGNA, which also kept workers in downtown Hartford.

Ness represented Chase Enterprises, the former longtime owner of One Corporate Center, the "Stilts Building;" Northland Investment Corp., now the largest landlord in downtown Hartford; Sovereign Bank; and other large companies during her brokerage career.

Yet ultimately, her foray into temporary corporate housing with Marriott ExecuStay in 2004 followed the same track as her commercial real estate jobs: It came unplanned. A friend told her about Marriott ExecuStay, and Ness met some of its partners in Washington, D.C., to discuss the opening of a franchise that would cover Connecticut, Boston and Rhode Island.

"After 20 years of brokerage, it was time to reinvent myself," Ness said.

She is currently looking for apartment communities in Greater Hartford willing to do short-term leasing to house her clients, and she wants to establish a fixed inventory of 25 to 50 apartments in downtown Hartford.

Marriott ExecuStay has clients in every prime residential community in the city of Hartford, Ness said. The company has housed scores of people in Trumbull on the Park and Bushnell on the Park, and plans to use Hartford 21 once it is completed.

Ness's "most amazing deal" at Marriott ExecuStay to date: securing a 40-unit group of apartments to house the cast and crew of a movie to be directed by Ben Affleck in Boston.

Closer to home, Ness found 35 apartment units for the visiting entertainment group Cirque de Soleil in the North Meadows last summer -"an interesting opportunity," Ness said, "because they're not your typical commercial or institutional type of client." She has also helped locate about 80 apartment units for summer interns at Aetna, St. Paul Travelers, CIGNA, The Hartford and others.

After years of working mostly for commissions, Ness finally earns a regular paycheck. She has also kept up the extensive civic involvement she began long before she achieved success as a commercial real estate broker, when spare time was more difficult to come by.

"Hartford has had its ups and downs, but I think it's finally beginning to get its act together. ... I feel like such a part of Hartford, I feel like I can't stop," Ness said. "It gives me great joy to see what's going on."

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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