News for the Hospitality Executive
|By Kenneth R. Gosselin, The Hartford Courant, Conn.
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Nov. 14, 2003 --Finding a hotel room or meeting space in downtown Hartford would get tougher if the city's largest hotel, the Hilton, closes for a year or more for a top-to-bottom, $15 million renovation.
But the hotel's prospective new owners say the inconvenience would be worth the trouble because the 30-year-old Hilton would reopen in 2005 as four- or five-star lodging -- just in time to help accommodate convention-goers at Adriaen's Landing.
The Hilton is expected to close in the third week of January, after the Procaccianti Group of Cranston, R.I., completes its purchase of the 396-room hotel. Procaccianti signed a definitive agreement Tuesday to buy the Hilton for $6 million from MeriStar Hospitality.
Not everyone was pleased with Thursday's announcement, however, and the plan could be challenged by city hall.
Mayor Eddie A. Perez said he wasn't happy that the hotel could be shut down and that as many as 80 city residents could lose their jobs. A total of about 140 workers could be out of work.
The city does have legal leverage over the project: It owns the land under the hotel, and its air rights lease may allow the city to take control of the hotel or block the shutdown, city officials said.
"Don't come in and throw people out over the holidays and expect people to like that. It's not a good corporate-citizen thing to do," Perez said. "I am going to get engaged in this to make sure the short-term needs of the workers are addressed."
A half-dozen angry union workers showed up at the Thursday afternoon press conference announcing the pending sale and renovations to demand a meeting with Procaccianti executives.
"We've had renovations before and we've always worked around them," said Juanetta Bryce, a 27-year hotel employee who works in the laundry and makes beds.
Robert Leven, Procaccianti's executive vice president of acquisitions, said, "We seriously regret the temporary loss of jobs this project will create, [but] the physical distress and the condition of the building left us no choice."
Leven said the hotel hasn't had a major overhaul of its mechanical systems -- elevators, heating and cooling, and escalators -- since it was built. The building is so outdated that rooms still have individual air conditioning units, rather than being cooled by a central system, Leven said. The hotel also was in danger of losing the Hilton name if there weren't major improvements, he said.
Leven said workers should take their beef to the current owners. MeriStar is meeting with employees and is offering outplacement services. Workers can reapply for jobs at the refurbished Hilton when it reopens, Leven said.
"We are buying an empty building with no employees," Leven said.
Perez said Procaccianti did not tell city officials in preliminary discussions that they planned to shut down the hotel during the renovations.
And the mayor's office did not receive written information from the developers until Thursday afternoon. Perez said those documents fall short of the kind of specific information that proves the developers can complete their plan as rapidly as possible.
"I don't want to have an empty hotel," Perez said. "And I want to have assurances that these guys are going to do what they say they're going to do. Suppose they shut the hotel down and never do anything."
The hotel's closing would force convention officials to scramble to find new space for large-scale meetings that have been booked at the Hilton, which has the largest ballroom in the city.
Large events, such as the National Writers Workshop, would have to be moved, possibly to another venue in Greater Hartford.
"We will keep as much business as possible downtown," said H.
Scott Phelps, president of the Greater Hartford Convention & Visitors Bureau. Phelps said downtown competitors such as the Goodwin and the Crowne Plaza would benefit from the shutdown.
But hotel rooms would be tougher to find, especially in March, Phelps said. The city is scheduled to host two major women's college basketball events that month: the Big East tournament and the semifinals and final of the NCAA East Regional.
"Is it an inconvenience? Yes, it is an inconvenience for the next 12 to 15 months," said Oz Griebel, president of the MetroHartford Alliance. "But what we will come out with at the other end is a refurbished hotel."
Procaccianti's planned purchase, renovations and other investments in the Hilton will total about $23 million, all financed with private money. Banknorth would provide a $13 million construction loan.
State officials said the private investment in the Hilton is further evidence that the hundreds of millions of dollars in public subsidies sunk into city economic development projects had done its job in attracting private investment.
Leven said Procaccianti was attracted to the Hilton project because it has invested in cities in the past decade that were on the verge of revitalization, including Providence and Richmond, Va.
The Hilton would be the largest renovation undertaken so far by the company, which owns and operates 20 hotels on the East Coast, from New Hampshire to Florida, and as far west as Illinois.
The Hilton is Procaccianti's second renovation in the Hartford area. Just to the east, in Founders Plaza in East Hartford, the firm recently refurbished the aging Ramada Inn into a Sheraton.
Leven said he believes Hartford is now gaining the momentum it needs for a true revival.
"We're investing $23 million because we think so," Leven said.
"We believe it 100 percent."
Courant Staff Writer Mike Swift contributed to this story.
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(c) 2003, The Hartford Courant, Conn. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News. HLT,