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$230 Million. 1.6 Million Square Feet. Commanding Views. ... Now All The Convention Center Needs Is Visitors.

February 27, 2005
By MIKE SWIFT Courant Staff Writer

As it took shape on Hartford's riverfront over the past two years, the Connecticut Convention Center became a massive physical presence on the city's landscape. Now it is about to become an economic presence as well.

The nearly completed hotel and attached convention center that loom over I-91 will claim a list of Hartford superlatives when they open later this year, capping a two-decade effort to build a convention center in Hartford.

The convention center, with 1.6 million square feet of space including its parking decks, will be the largest new public building since the opening of the Hartford Civic Center 30 years ago. The Hartford Marriott Downtown will open as the city's largest hotel, with 409 rooms and 22 floors. And with a combined cost topping $300 million, the complex will be the most expensive pair of buildings ever built in Hartford.

What remains unknown, even to enthusiastic convention officials, is whether the economic payoff will fully justify the $230 million that the state's general fund paid for the project - a cost taxpayers will be footing until the state bonds are repaid in 2024.

Less than four months from opening day, bookings are strong, convention officials say. They say that meeting planners throughout the country want to bring their events to a new building in an affordable city within an easy drive of more than 20 million people.

In a region that has had stagnant job growth since the late 1980s, and in a city that has lost thousands of jobs in that time, the convention center could be an important economic spark, said Ronald F. Van Winkle, a West Hartford economist. "It's bringing money in, very much like manufacturing does," he said. "Anything that creates new jobs, and anything that creates a job that brings a person from Omaha to spend money in Connecticut, is a good thing for Connecticut."

Once the Connecticut Convention Center opens - the first official event is scheduled for June 2, with the center expected to host more than 8,000 visitors in its first four days - officials say that bookings will only grow as meeting planners see how well the facility works.

"I'm just ecstatic about the quality of the business," said Jeanne O'Grady, the convention center's director of sales and marketing. "The numbers today look fine. The numbers tomorrow are only going to look better, after we prove ourselves for everyone."

Nevertheless, bookings for large conventions are yet to match what a consultant forecast when it sold legislators on Adriaen's Landing five years ago. A new report published by the influential Brookings Institution says that Connecticut's convention center is opening at a time when weakening convention demand is combining with a building boom to create tougher competition for events and a national glut of space.

"The [convention centers] that have expanded are not getting new events; the ones that haven't expanded are losing events," said Heywood Sanders, author of the Brookings paper. "A relatively stable pool of events is spreading out, and that means everybody is getting less."

For a convention center that was supposed to operate at a loss, even under the rosy scenario promised by the consultants who sold legislators on the project, that could mean a lot of red ink, said Sanders, a professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

There are other ways, of course, that the convention center could enrich Hartford.

When a large convention is in town, the center will pepper the town with pediatric oncology nurses, music teachers, model train enthusiasts, aerospace engineers or whichever small society is attending those meetings, seeding Hartford with visitors from throughout the country.

That influx "will have an impact on the way the city feels," said Joe Marfuggi, the president of Riverfront Recapture.

And even if they aren't directly involved in the feeding, housing or entertaining of conventioneers, downtown business people from clothiers to commercial real estate brokers expect a payoff.

"It will make a tremendous difference if we could see a couple of thousand people coming through this downtown with some spare time on their hands," said Ron Mourneault, the owner of Tuesday's, a clothing store that has long been a mainstay on Asylum Street.

Some businesses that hope to entertain conventioneers think they will do even better.

"I'm expecting good things," said Al Ciraldo, owner of the Gold Club exotic dance club in the city's North Meadows. "I think like most business owners, more inflow to the area, more business travel, should help all around, from restaurants, bars, everything. It should be a trickle-down effect for everybody."

`Wow' Factor

To be sure, the new convention center is going to impress some people when it opens.

Start with the views. Even though the center is three football fields long, it differs from many convention centers in that its parking, exhibition space, meeting rooms and ballroom are stacked vertically instead of sprawling horizontally.

And because of that stacking, the views from the building's upper levels are striking, presenting the long arc of the Connecticut River and the glinting glass of downtown buildings from a completely new perspective.

The convention center's own marketing materials try to make the point that the new building is not just a gussied-up aircraft hanger.

"The overall wall palette is warm and neutral, colored in butter, biscuit and shades of taupe," one marketing piece purrs. "Vibrant details and colorful design elements, at once geometric with subtle curvilinear undertones, are thoughtfully applied throughout the facility."

The atrium, a glassed-in, airy space with ceilings 125 feet high, is big enough to make you feel small - a rare experience in Hartford.

And if you're getting married and can't decide which second cousin to leave off the guest list, the convention center might be right for you. The center staff is already touring brides-to-be in hard hats (the staff supplies a white veil for each bride to wear under her hard hat) through a building whose ballroom will be large enough to hold 2,300 people for a banquet.

Kisha Samuels, a convention center sales manager, said that she is booking several weddings that would have 250 to 400 guests.

What's the selling point of having your nuptials in a convention center?

"The view," Samuels said. "It's not like you're in a box. You stare out and it's nighttime and you can see the whole city with its lights on."

And when brides get their first glimpse of the giant ballroom and its 30-foot high ceiling, Samuels said she hears one word: "Wow."

The convention center will offer a large new venue for local events, such as banquets or corporate meetings, which the region has lacked. But the convention center will book those local events only around the big conventions, which have priority because they bring hundreds of visitors to town for several days.

It will be the convention center's performance at pulling in those big multiday events - conventions that would draw outside money into the region's economy that would then flow through area hotels, restaurants and shops - that will determine the center's economic success, or mark its failure.

Economic Success?

The next few months will bring a burst of activity for the staff charged with opening the convention center. Their numbers will swell tenfold, from seven to as many as 70 full-time employees.

Like the owner of any new home, the convention center's staff has lots of furniture and other accessories to buy - hundreds of tables and chairs, pieces of office furniture, staging, a wireless and wired Internet service and other vital equipment.

"Over the next few months we're going to be doing a lot of spending," said Ben Seidel, executive director of the convention center. Much of that equipment is being purchased locally, Seidel said, another boost for the local economy.

The Greater Hartford Convention & Visitors Bureau, the private organization charged with bringing large conventions to Hartford, says that at least 51,000 people will attend conventions and trade shows during the center's first year of operation.

Based on industry projections that the average conventioneer spends $266 a day over a 3.6-night visit, the bureau says the convention center's first year of operation will bring $28.8 million into the region's economy. Pending convention business, should the bureau land it, would add as much as $9 million more.

Still, those convention totals would appear to fall somewhat short of the promises that consultants made when they were trying to sell the convention center to legislators. A 2000 feasibility study by the accounting firm KPMG said that a Hartford convention center would draw an average yearly attendance of 65,700 conventioneers in its first four years, drawing about 35 conventions with an average attendance of 1,800 each.

Total convention center attendance, currently projected at about 250,000 for about 200 events in the building's first year, is well above KPMG's projections. The total attendance figure counts conventions, trade shows and consumer shows, as well as meetings, banquets and other local events that would book space within the convention center.

The convention center's firm bookings are not so strong in coming years, at least not yet. In the second year, the number of booked conventions and trade shows stands at 18, with nine booked for the third year, but convention officials say they are confident those numbers will grow.

The national slowdown is not just affecting the largest convention centers, said Sanders, author of the Brookings report. The building boom means more competition for regional convention centers such as Hartford, as well as for mega-centers in Orlando, Las Vegas and Chicago, he said.

"There is more competition even for small and medium-sized centers" such as Hartford, Sanders said.

Nevertheless, convention officials predict that the center will be an economic and civic success for the city and region.

H. Scott Phelps, president of the convention and visitors bureau, said that the Hartford convention center has an easy-to-reach location in the heart of the most affluent and densely populated part of the country, plus the proven tourist draw of New England.

Those attributes, he said, will inoculate Hartford against the convention slowdown documented by the Brookings report.

"What we're showing here is that there is a pent-up demand for a Northeast location that can offer our demographics and our accessibility. We have been met with an awful lot of interest," Phelps said. "We are not at all discouraged by what we've seen and what we've been able to accomplish."

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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