March 2, 2005
By KENNETH R. GOSSELIN, Courant Staff Writer
For many in Hartford, the reopening
Tuesday of the downtown Hilton was a double cause for celebration.
An aging hotel on one of the city's most prominent streets has been fully
renovated in a $33 million, top-to-bottom makeover. And employees from the
old hotel, who once stood to lose their jobs, are back at work.
And while the developers showed off their new Trumbull Street building,
the workers were at the center of the celebration. Although the hotel's management
has not yet reached an agreement with their union, the workers were welcomed
at the ribbon-cutting and a special luncheon at which they entered on a red
carpet and were showered with blue-and-white confetti.
All the attention caught senior bellhop Gordon Johnson a little by surprise.
Johnson, 51, had been working as a security guard while the yearlong renovation
was underway. He decided to return - as have 122 of his fellow workers at
the old Hilton - because of the higher union pay and benefits. Tuesday's
festivities, he said, show the emphasis on the worker.
"It's the atmosphere," Johnson said. "It's
about the people."
As the workers streamed into the refurbished
ballroom, a disc jockey played the theme from the movie "Rocky." Hartford Mayor Eddie A. Perez,
a key proponent in picking a developer that would guarantee the hotel workers
their jobs, danced with some of them to the song "Celebration."
Earlier, at opening ceremonies, Perez said Tuesday marked the rebirth of
a building that had once fallen into such disrepair that Hilton threatened
to pull its name from the hotel. But the opening also marked the beginning
of an era in which workers would play a key role in attracting visitors.
"It's really about making this structure a human structure that attracts
folks to this place because of the people who work here," Perez said. "And
it's the people that are going to make a difference once people decide to
come back time and again."
Perez brought that message to the employee luncheon, too.
"It's up to you now," he said
to housekeepers, servers and bartenders and front desk personnel seated
at tables festooned with blue-and-white balloons.
The hotel will employ more than 200, including managers. More hiring is
anticipated, as business picks up.
When the developers - The Waterford Group - took over the Hilton renovation
a little over a year ago, the project was mired in controversy.
A prospective buyer promising a major makeover had been found. But the buyer
- The Procaccianti Group - was a nonunion company that wanted to close the
hotel and dismiss its unionized workforce.
Perez stepped in to exercise the city's right of refusal to block the sale.
Perez then picked Waterford as the redeveloper. Waterford also wanted to
close the hotel but signed an agreement to honor the Hilton's existing union
Ever since the Hilton closed a year ago, the project has been on a tight
timeline imposed by the city. It was supposed to be completed Dec. 31, but
that was extended because it soon became clear more extensive renovations
would be needed.
The cost of the project also rose from its initial $28.5 million, which
included the cost of buying the building from MeriStar Hospitality.
There also was intense pressure to open Tuesday. The Hilton will be the
host hotel for the Big East college basketball tournament this weekend in
Hartford. Of the hotel's 392 rooms, 320 are booked for the event, for the
teams, their families, alumni, cheerleaders and band members.
"There was some sweating, but we knew we'd get it done," said
Mark Wolman, president of Waterford's construction operations.
The hotel has been humming with activity around the clock for the last 10
days, as construction workers raced to complete tiling and the installation
of carpeting and painting, Wolman said.
As the hotel's first visitors stepped into the lobby, they wiped their shoes
on a doormat to avoid soiling the white porcelain tile and tan speckled marble.
Two elevators and a staircase have replaced
the outdated escalators that once criss-crossed the lobby. A new ground
floor restaurant - Morty & Ming's
- eclectically combines Chinese and Jewish deli-style food that is served
in translucent orange booths or for takeout. Both the restaurant and a new
bar - Element 315, named after the hotel's street address on Trumbull - have
separate entrances from the lobby.
In the floors above, guest rooms have been gutted and now have sleek furniture
that combines traditional style with clean, modern lines. Bathrooms have
granite countertops. And wallpaper and carpets are in creams and tans. The
rooms go for $169 to $219 a night.
Artwork in hallways include photographs of Hartford landmarks, such as the
Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch in Bushnell Park.
The largest suite, the Connecticut Suite, encompasses 1,700 square feet
on the 22nd floor. It includes a master bath with a whirlpool that has a
moat for catching water that may cascade out of the tub. There is a pantry
with a stainless steel refrigerator and granite countertops. And there are
two televisions: a 42-inch plasma screen in the living room and a 32-inch
flat screen in the master bedroom.
The suite goes for $700 to $900 a night.
With the opening, Wolman said, all major construction has been completed,
but some minor work remains to be done in the coming weeks.
The negotiating of a contract for the unionized workers also remains to
Union officials Tuesday said workers are
committed to making the Hilton a four diamond star rated hotel, but that
negotiations have been more "difficult
and conflicted" than first anticipated. Neither the union, UNITE HERE
Local 217, nor Waterford would discuss the issues that separate them.
Workers are now being paid under the terms of the previous contract, union
Len Wolman, Waterford's chief executive, said he feels progress is being
"I believe we will have a contract in the near future," Wolman
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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