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WFSB Goes Suburban
TV Station Breaks Agreement To Stay In Hartford

March 5, 2005
By JEFFREY B. COHEN, Courant Staff Writer

WFSB-TV, Channel 3, has abandoned a 6-month-old deal to relocate its studios in Hartford and is looking for a new home in the suburbs.

Elden A. Hale Jr., WFSB vice president and general manager, said the 3.2-acre site offered by the city turned out to be too small for the station's needs.

"Had this been an item of negotiations, we would be building in Hartford," Hale said Friday. "But it's an issue of space, and you can't change the size of a piece of land."

The news shocked Mayor Eddie A. Perez, who took a personal hand in the negotiations that led to the city's agreement with the station last summer.

"I'm surprised and a little bit taken aback, because we thought we had a deal," Perez said. "I don't sign a deal unless I know I've got it wrapped up."

Hale said WFSB's needs had changed since it made its deal with the city in late August 2004. The new facility is now to be the broadcast headquarters for its parent company, Meredith Corp., he said, and the station also needs more room for its growing Hispanic programming initiatives.

"We just realized it didn't make sense to spend some $20 million on a facility that was too small the day we opened it," Hale said.

But Perez was skeptical.

"You would imagine that if anyone was going to talk about the Hispanic market in Connecticut they would talk to the highest elected Latino in the state who's just two blocks away," Perez said. "I'm used to someone giving me a challenge, and I rise up to that challenge.

"If they wanted to deal with those issues, we would have met them head-on," he said.

Under the terms of the August relocation agreement, the city was to sell a 3.2-acre redevelopment site known as 12B at Main and Trumbull streets to WFSB for $800,000 and take ownership of the current facility on Constitution Plaza. The city also offered roughly $1 million in tax abatements and seven years' worth of paid city advertisements on the station.

Now that the deal is off, the Constitution Plaza studio will go on the market, Hale said. He would not disclose the asking price.

The Constitution Plaza site is an attractive one, he said, in part because of its proximity to the now-vacant Clarion Hotel. "If someone owned both of these pieces of property, that would be a huge footprint at the front door of downtown Hartford," he said.

Hale did say the station would be willing to work with the city should it be interested in purchasing the site. "It would have to be a reasonable business deal, but it wouldn't have to be the best offer we got," he said.

City council majority leader John V. Bazzano, who once vowed that he would lie down in front of WFSB's moving vans to prevent its departure, said he won't be making the same pledge this time.

"If we hadn't done everything we could, I'd renew my statement," Bazzano said. "But I think we did everything we possibly could to try to make the deal work."

"They've been part of this city for such a long time, they're synonymous with the capital city," Bazzano said. "I think everyone in the city of Hartford should be disappointed. Hartford is where they belong, it's their home, and it's sad to see them go."

The city council may consider whether to try to purchase the current WFSB site, Bazzano said. "Now that it's on the table, we'll have to revisit it," he said.

WFSB's current building was designed for television in 1960, Hale said, and his company spent roughly a year in 2003 with architects exploring options to refurbish it. When it became clear that a renovation wouldn't be feasible, Hale and his team began to look in and out of the city for prospective new locations.

The company needs 5 or 6 acres on which to build a two-story building, he said - one floor for production, one floor for business.

"We need 5 to 6 acres, and there's virtually none of that downtown," he said. Add to that the fact that the station needs immediate highway access, and the options are slim, he said.

So it began to focus outside of the city, and was 98 percent of the way done when the mayor entered the scene and offered the parcel, which is next to the Crowne Plaza Hotel, he said. But what began with optimism ended this week with disappointment, as the station's business needs changed, Hale said.

"We just realized it couldn't be done," he said.

Now, Perez said, life goes on. Other developers and businesses have shown interest in the property, he said. As for the station site at Constitution Plaza, Perez said he was hoping to assemble one large site by acquiring both the station and the old Clarion Hotel.

The hotel is privately owned but is not in use. Asked whether he would have considered eminent domain to acquire the hotel, Perez responded that all options were on the table.

"We want to make sure we develop those sites to the maximum," Perez said. "The highest and best use of that site is not a vacant hotel and a broadcast house."

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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