March 6, 2017

Hartford Club unveils new renovations as it looks to rebound

HBJ PHOTO | MattPilon
HBJ PHOTO | MattPilon
Tom Natola, general manager of the Hartford Club, said a new bar and other planned investments should be a boon to membership.

You have to spend money to make money, the old adage goes.

Now, three years after nearly losing its longtime home to foreclosure, the 144-year-old Hartford Club is back in a position to do just that, its leaders say.

"We're embarking on a bit of a new direction here," Scott Trenholm, a longtime member and audit partner at Grant Thornton, said in an interview last month before the private club's annual meeting, during which he was elected president of the board of governors. "We're going to be able to reinvest in the club."

The first sign of reinvestment was on display just feet away from where Trenholm was sitting, in the club's newly refurbished member lounge. The 1,960-square-foot space has a new bar built by Newington's Cyr Woodworking that's more than twice the size of the old one. The club has also removed the lounge's carpeting, exposing long-hidden original wood flooring from 1903. The project cost approximately $100,000, which was raised during a member fundraising gala last year.

"We think it will re-energize the membership, which in the long run will lead to more members," Trenholm said. "That kind of progress and momentum begets more momentum."

Trenholm said the biggest challenge is recruiting new members. The club has about 515 members, up a bit from 18 months ago, but down from around 600 in 2013.

"We can't continue to just tread water at the membership level we're at right now," he said. "To really be viable and to give people the kind of experience they deserve as a member of a club they're paying dues to, we need to increase it to 600, to 700."

Tom Natola, the Hartford Club's general manager and chief operating officer, said the new bar should help woo new members and keep existing ones entertained.

But it's just the beginning. Natola also wants to renovate the club's dining room, cigar lounge, front entrance and other areas — which he said could cost north of $300,000. The club has secured a new line of credit to help with potential projects.

It's a significant turnaround from 2013, when Berkshire Bank foreclosed on the club's mortgage. Shortly after that, a judge ordered a sale of the Prospect Street building in 2014.

The Hartford Club was eventually saved after local businessmen Alan Lazowski and Henry Zachs, as well as a group of members, provided $1.1 million in bridge financing in Sept. 2015 to buy the mortgage and pay down back taxes.

Approximately 10 percent of the club's membership contributed funds to a limited liability company (1873 LLC), which was formed to stabilize the club's financial situation.

As of October, 1873 LLC raised $950,000, according to U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission filings. The loan has since been repaid, Natola said.

To board member Eric George, president of the Insurance Association of Connecticut, the fundraising showed how much members care about the historic club.

"At the end of the day, our members are energized and engaged," George said. "They're not only willing, but enthusiastic to give to the club and see it move to the next level."

While there are challenges ahead, there are also bright spots.

The club has been running smaller deficits, Trenholm said.

And through the first five months of its current fiscal year, which ends in August, the club has been profitable.

Part of that is thanks to an extraordinary December for the dining room, which brought in more than $330,000 in revenue that month — one of the best in a decade.

"It demonstrated to us we can handle that volume of business and that people are coming back and doing their parties again and banquets again," Natola said.

The completion of construction at Travelers' plaza across the street and UConn's new campus nearing completion just a block away could also be positives for future recruitment and business.

"We're destroying the myth out there that the Hartford Club is in trouble and that it's your grandfather's club," he said.

Disclosure: Hartford Business Journal Publisher Joe Zwiebel is a newly elected Hartford Club board member.

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