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Selling Greater Hartford

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Selling Greater Hartford, Vegas-Style

June 2, 2004

By MIKE SWIFT, Courant Staff Writer

LAS VEGAS -- From beneath an ersatz oak tree hung with lanterns, Will Lorenz scanned the faces of men and women clutching blue cocktails and sweaty beer bottles at a private party at the Mandalay Bay casino.

He was looking to hook up with someone.

Not to hook up in quite the way most people do on the Las Vegas Strip. Lorenz, who works for the developer of the Front Street entertainment and housing district at Adriaen's Landing, was looking for a broker who could introduce him to a restaurant chain, a retailer or some other tenant interested in doing business in Hartford.

Lorenz, of Capital Properties, was one of more than 35,000 developers, brokers, bankers, retailers and consultants who descended on Las Vegas late last month for the annual spring meeting of the International Council of Shopping Centers.

Among them were the people behind three major developments that may change how people think about Hartford and its suburbs: Front Street, the "Town Square" reconstruction of the Hartford Civic Center mall and Blue Back Square in West Hartford Center.

With the Hartford projects scheduled to open in 2005, and Blue Back hoping to open its retail stores in late fall 2006, the developers are beginning to court tenants in earnest. There are few better places to spark those relationships than the annual Las Vegas meeting, which in the universe of retail real estate, is a bit like a big singles club.

"You have almost every retailer and almost every active developer in the country, and they're all in the same room," said Brad M. Hutensky, president of The Hutensky Group, a Hartford developer that had a booth at the conference.

In an industry where relationships - connections, favors and reputations - can be nearly as critical as a deal's term sheet, the Las Vegas convention is so important that Street-Works LLC, a prime developer of Blue Back Square, was willing to spend $250,000 on its booth for the three-day convention.

Front Street's agents wooed tenants from a 23rd-floor suite at the Las Vegas Hilton. They vowed that they weren't competing directly with Blue Back for tenants. But Front Street's backers were to discover by the end of the convention that with at least one significant retailer, they are.

Front Street's strategy to lure shopping back to downtown Hartford emerged in sharp relief in Las Vegas.

To sell a kind of development that is still in its infancy - an open-air combination of housing, retail, entertainment and restaurants in a downtown location - Front Street's agents told retailers that the project would be supported by office workers, affluent urbanites moving into new downtown housing and visitors to the city's new convention center, science center and the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art.

To lure retailers to Front Street, it was clear that downtown housing is going to have to take off in a big way.

"Hartford has been smart enough to know you have to bring the residential back along with the retail, "Jeff McKenzie, one of the leasing agents for Front Street, reassured one skeptical retailer.

`Stalking'

Lorenz did get lucky at the Mandalay Bay, linking up with a broker who represented a slightly upscale but family-priced hamburger venue that Lorenz thought could be a perfect fit for Front Street.

The next morning, Lorenz walked the floor of the Las Vegas Convention Center, in his words, "stalking" tenants. Befitting the crucial first full day of the convention, Lorenz had dressed with care, in a dark business suit with green tie and white shirt, his graying hair carefully coifed.

"Deals aren't really made there," Lorenz said of the convention. "It's about reacquainting yourself with people, seeing them at parties, pressing the flesh. And after that, everything goes from there."

An athletic, blue-eyed 46-year-old, Lorenz was feeling the pain of recent knee surgery. But he soldiered through the mob of suits and skirts, a man moving deliberately to definite destinations.

Lorenz simply shook his head at the booth for the Yum! Restaurant Group, which includes outlets for A&W, KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell. Too downscale for Front Street.

But sighting the booth of New World Restaurant Group, which includes Einstein Bros. Bagels, Lorenz saw something he wanted.

"[Downtown] Hartford doesn't have any bagel shops," he said.

Unfortunately, New World had no plans to expand Einstein Bros. in the Northeast. Front Street would have to find a different bagel.

Lorenz moved on, picking up some good candidates for smaller spaces at Front Street: the UPS Store and HCX Salons International, a Florida company that operates haircolorxperts, upscale hair-coloring salons.

Lorenz searched out kiosks for street vendors at Front Street. He found a nice silver metal and Plexiglas model, reminiscent of a European newsstand.

"I need 15," he told the company representatives.

Lorenz arrived for a meeting with Tom Rettaliata, a broker with Ripco Real Estate Corp. in Jericho, N.Y., which represents an upscale restaurant chain that Front Street has its eyes on.

For Rettaliata, Lorenz penciled key prospective tenants' names into Front Street's plan, including Brooks Brothers and ESPN.

Rettaliata furrowed his brow at the sports network's name.

"An ESPN Zone?" he asked Lorenz, referring to entertainment and restaurant attractions that ESPN has in places such as Times Square.

No, Lorenz said, the Hartford ESPN attraction was still in development, but it would include some kind of interactive attraction and display on ESPN's history in Connecticut.

Lorenz left Front Street's information packet for retailers - headline: "Front is Back" - and plunged back into the crowd. It seemed like a good meeting.

Asked later for his take on Front Street, Rettaliata was guarded.

"If he's really got Brooks Brothers, that'd be interesting because they don't open up that many locations," he said.

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like it said in the article "the main thing is HOUSING" hartford needs people too bring it up and make it a desirable place, i've said it many times before but its true.

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