Con­ven­tion Bat­tle

Author­ity Study­ing Po­ten­tial In­vest­ments To Boost Build­ing’s Cul­tural, Eco­nomic Pro­file

Hartford Courant - - Front Page - By KEN­NETH R. GOS­SELIN kgos­selin@courant.com

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.

KEN­NETH R. GOS­SELIN | HARTFORD COURANT

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.

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