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Lessons From A Deal Gone Sour

By Stan Simpson
March 9, 2005

I think I've got it: WFSB, Channel 3, wants to expand its Latino market. So, it's heading to the suburbs and leaving Hartford, which has one of the largest concentrations of Puerto Ricans in the country and boasts the only Latino mayor in a capital city.

No, that won't pass the sniff test.

But it also doesn't mean that WFSB wears the black hat in its startling decision to bolt the city it has called home for close to half a century, squashing plans for a new $20 million, 60,000-square-foot building downtown.

Mayor Eddie Perez, chief of staff Matthew Hennessy and everyone else involved in the city's negotiations with WFSB Vice President and General Manager Elden A. Hale Jr. have to do a little soul-searching. What made a major asset like WFSB, owned by Meredith Corp. and employing 200 people, renege on its commitment to expand its operation in the city?

Those familiar with the negotiations say Channel 3 was balking at minority-hiring provisions the city required for construction. And that Channel 3 felt put off by what it perceived as the heavy-handed tone of the city's negotiations. The station felt like the city disregarded its 48-year history in Hartford and instead treated the station as if the city was doing it a favor, instead of the other way around. Channel 3 had concerns about space from the beginning and could have built its facility for less money in the suburbs. But it wanted to retain its presence in the capital.

While Perez and his administration rightfully tried to protect the city's interest in mandating timelines for construction and hiring provisions for minorities, women and city residents, WFSB felt it was being unduly squeezed.

The two sides quibbled over many of the provisions, including one that would require the city to allocate 50 percent of its advertising budget for non-legal affairs with WFSB over a seven-year period.

WFSB's exit doesn't bode well for shaking Hartford's old reputation of not being particularly business-friendly. Certainly, future developers of the long-vacant 3.4-acre parcel off Trumbull and Main street - known as "12-B" - will want to know the lowdown on the WFSB blow-off.

"We were willing to pay a premium to stay in the city because I thought it was worth it," said Hale. Asked if WFSB was leery about inking provisions for hiring minorities and women on the construction site, he said, "there was no minority-hiring issue with the city," indicating that any problems along those lines were for the most part resolved.

Hennessy said the city was blindsided by WFSB's decision. He said that the station would be getting millions of dollars in public tax perks and that "there are obligations involved with that."

Both sides would like to make this story one with a short shelf life. Hartford wants to keep its development-mojo going. WFSB doesn't want to dog the city on its way out.

The biggest blunder in this deal is that a contract was never signed. So, when the tone and tenor of the negotiations became contentious and space needs became pronounced, the station had a huge out.

Lesson No. 1 for Senor Alcalde and his business-conscious administration: Next time you trumpet a big development, make sure both parties have signed on the dotted line.

Actually, like the Patriots pulling out of its deal for a downtown stadium a few years back, this may work out for the best. With a rash of development plans now taking shape - the Hartford Hilton, the convention center/Marriott Hotel and the under-construction civic center - the value of 12-B is rising. Channel 3's Constitution Plaza building, if it sells to the city, and the long dormant Clarion Hotel nearby also make for an appealing development package.

And don't forget about city Councilman Robert Painter's proposal for a college park campus in the 12-B area, featuring an educational center, with themes that could include urban studies or finance, and possibly adjacent housing. The buildings would be used by students attending local colleges - Capital Community College, the universities of Connecticut and Hartford, Rensselaer at Hartford and Trinity College. More important, it would bring young energy, intellectual capital and a new identity to a downtown that desperately needs all three.

WFSB's pending exit, troubling as it, shouldn't necessarily signal a "there-they-go-again" chorus about Hartford politics.

But it should give Perez's people pause to consider what role they played in this sweet deal turned sour.

Stan Simpson's column appears Wednesdays and Saturdays. He can be heard live this Saturday on WTIC NewsTalk 1080.

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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