Authority Studying Potential Investments To Boost Building’s Cultural, Economic Profile
Amid competition from Mohegan Sun, the authority behind the Connecticut Convention Center is trying to build the cultural and economic profile of the Hartford building.
The Capital Region Development Authority is launching a study to get a jump on vying for future business at Hartford’s convention center as the field of competitors grows, particularly at the Mohegan Sun casino, which just opened an expo center.
“My concern is [Mohegan’s] convention center does to ours what their arena did to the XLCenter, and that’s something we can’t sit around and watch,” Michael W. Freimuth, CRDA’s executive director, said.
Mohegan Sun, one of the two casinos in Connecticut’s southeastern corner, has taken a big bite out of the Hartford’s XL Center concert business. Earlier this year, Mohegan opened a 240,000-square-foot expo and convention center and quickly snapped up the Connecticut International Auto Show, a staple at the convention center for the past 12 years. The auto show drew nearly 13,000 to Hartford in 2017 over the three-day event.
The newly opened MGMSpringfield also poses a new competitive threat. The casino and entertainment complex has 34,000 square feet of meeting and conference space.
Freimuth said the study of the Connecticut Convention Center — now13 years old — will be conducted by a consultant that is expected to be hired by the end of the year. A report — outlining a 15-year plan through 2035 — is due in the spring.
The study will examine what investments should be made in the convention center, built at a cost of $375 million, to boost its profile as a vibrant attraction and economic driver. More visitors benefit hotels, restaurants, entertainment and cultural attractions in the city and the surrounding area. The investments would target the services and amenities that now are expected by groups booking conventions and conferences.
Those preferences have changed dramatically since construction on the convention center beganin 2005 — including the technology for everything from computer presentations to ample charging stations.
“But it’s not just what the building needs. It’s the nature of events and how we are marketing ourselves,” Freimuth said.
In recent years, conventions and conferences generally have become smaller, more regional events and with a shorter duration.
In Hartford, the shift has presented challenges for juggling multi- ple events in a venue that has 205,000 square feet of exhibit, ballroom and meeting space.
How much updates and other improvements might cost state taxpayers would be determined by the consultant. But Freimuth said they would not come close to what is needed at the far older XL Center arena across downtown.
CRDA’s board first recommended a $250 million makeover of the XL Center but found little appetite for it among state legislators who were under pressure to deal with a spiraling state budget deficit.
CRDA is now studying the potential for scaled-back renovations, still pricey at $75 million to $100 million.
Evaluating the convention center now will avoid what is now needed at the XL — the former Hartford Civic Center — where too much time passed before serious thought was given to major upgrades and there was erosion of the venue’s competitive edge, Freimuth said.
In the last six fiscal years, average attendance at the convention center was 353,000 with an average of 171 events, according to CRDA.
In the 2017-2018 fiscal year, the convention center cost $13.9 million to operate and drew in revenue of $10.8 million from events. The venue was given a $3.8 million state subsidy, offset by $3.95 million in state taxes generated by the convention center.
Despite the loss of the car show, Freimuth said Hartford’s convention center still is a strong draw for boating, camping, golfing, fishing and the popular flower show. But some of those events are also being sought out by Mohegan Sun.
Hartford competes with convention venues in Providence, Albany and to a lesser extent, Newark and Trenton. But the casinos are worrisome because they can easily offer new attractions — all under one roof — to attract repeat bookings.
Groups booking events “always want to see something new,” Freimuth said.
THE CONNECTICUT Convention Center replaced its 40,000 square feet of carpeting for the first time, an example of investments necessary to keep the venue looking new and attracting repeat bookings.