July 24, 2017

UConn’s Front Street arrival sets off a retail feeding frenzy

PHOTO | Steve Laschever
PHOTO | Steve Laschever
Nixs restaurant and other vendors in downtown Hartford’s Front Street retail-entertainment district are bracing for more foot and vehicular traffic once UConn’s downtown campus bows in late August. At left, chef Philip Parise and bartender/wait-server Ashley Alessandra Fichera.
PHOTOs | Steve Laschever
(Clockwise) Qdoba Mexican Eats restaurant district manager Jeff Badger; Anthony Raucci, proprietor of Ted’s Montana Grill, says enthusiasm for UConn’s Front Street arrival is tempered by concerns over adequate parking.

Nixs, the restaurant-bar in downtown Hartford's Front Street retail-entertainment district, plans an exterior facelift around the time UConn's adjacent new campus opens there in late August.

The eatery will create an outdoor cafe and internet lounge outside its 40 Front St. location, where an anticipated 2,000 or so UConn faculty, staff, pupils and other downtown patrons can relax with a sandwich, salad or espresso latte, or use free Wi-Fi and charging stations to phone-chat or surf online, says proprietor Abner Kurtin.

To further entice UConn's faithful, Nixs will open with a 15-percent discount for all Husky students and is joining other Connecticut restaurants and entertainment venues in pursuing approval to accept "Husky Bucks'' — the school's cashless debit card for meals and other retail purchases.

"We are excited about UConn opening and serving their community," Kurtin said. "We hope this will bring Front Street the long-awaited foot traffic that will help boost local retailers."

Nixs is among a raft of downtown Hartford retailers, restaurants, apartment landlords and operators of public and cultural venues in the center city eagerly anticipating UConn's opening.

The impending influx of thousands of new potential customers daily — a single shot in downtown Hartford's arm not seen in generations — is coaxing many nearby venues to retool or makeover their businesses, particularly as they seek to cater to a younger college crowd.

Some commercial establishments in and around Front Street are ramping up their interior-exterior decors, food and drink menus, adding specials and operating hours, among other lures.

Even the budget-strapped state, via its CTtransit unit, is extending to UConn-Hartford pupils its offer of discounted bus rides to and from school.

First developed in phases, beginning in the late 1990s, UConn's arrival to Front Street may finally make it the retail-entertainment hub the city and the state envisioned with the Adriaen's Landing development, observers say.

Farmington entertainment entrepreneur Dan Hincks, owner of Infinity Music Hall & Bistro in the Front Street district, says the potential benefit to the district and to Hartford's image is being underestimated. Hincks said with Trinity College coming downtown later this year, and University of St. Joseph eyeing expansion of its downtown presence, and University of Hartford mulling something similar, the stage is set for Hartford to become a regional entertainment destination.

"This is a major bright spot. UConn's taken the lead here,'' Hincks said. "But I think the area is going to grow over time. The other colleges will have a stronger presence in town. It's going to make for a more vibrant Hartford after hours.''

Hincks added, "There's going to be a lot of pressure for UConn to grow [downtown]. Students are going to want to come here. I wouldn't be surprised if in five years the [downtown] student population hasn't doubled.''

Despite the optimism, some merchants cite lingering concerns, like whether parking is sufficient for UConn as well as the thousands of weekday commuters into the Capital City.

Gearing up

Hartford's downtown apartment landlords have begun pitching the quality, location and pricing of their living spaces to prospective UConn residents.

Front Street developer HB Nitkin Group of Greenwich is advertising through UConn's student-housing services the availability of units in its two-year-old, 121-unit Front Street Lofts luxury apartment building next door to UConn's campus building on Prospect Street, the former Hartford Times building, said HB Nitkin Director of Development and Acquisitions Peter Christian.

Nitkin also is actively leasing the ground-floor retail in UConn's building, Christian said. Meantime, the Barnes & Noble bookstore/Starbucks coffee shop on the Lofts' ground floor opens in mid-August.

Spotlight Theatres, too, is gearing up to serve students' needs — both for classroom study and when time comes to wind down. Spotlight, along with The Atheneum and the Hartford Public Library, has agreed to share with UConn some of its space, as needed, for classes and lectures.

UConn officials admit that, aside from saving money and adding more teaching space, pupils and instructors shuttling between downtown buildings will encourage them to visit and trade with center-city merchants.

"Our goal is to stay current and provide what our customers need,'' said Trina Gallo, Spotlight Theatres' Hartford general manager. "We saw a way to be more than just a movie theater.''

Spotlight's four cinema rooms, all equipped with stadium seating, currently are the host venue for UConn-Hartford's orientations for about 600 incoming pupils, Gallo said. The theater, which features a bar and sit-down restaurant, is conducting some renovations, like new flooring and plug-in outlets for electronics, and furniture that can be easily moved and arranged to accommodate large groups, she said.

Spotlight also awaits the university's approval to accept Husky Bucks. During UConn football and basketball seasons, all televised games will be shown free inside the theater, and open to the general public, Gallo said. Spotlight's airing the last three seasons of ESPN's "Monday Night Football'' games on its big screens has been a hit.

Next door, the 25-table Ted's Montana Grill, too, is pursuing UConn's approval to accept Husky Bucks, said Anthony Raucci, proprietor of the Hartford location for the steakhouse chain owned by media mogul Ted Turner.

Raucci, a food-service veteran, says he was hired specifically to get Ted's Hartford location ready for UConn's grand downtown entrance. Ted's biggest challenge, he said, will be its $15 to $16 average lunch menu.

Recently, Hartford hosted the annual ConnectiCon pop-culture gathering at the Connecticut Convention Center across Columbus Boulevard from Front Street. Raucci said he watched some ConnectiCon participants walk into Ted's, take one look at the menu prices and walk out. Adequate parking is another concern, Raucci said.

"I think we're going to have a parking situation with the garage,'' he said of the attached Front Street parking facility just steps from Ted's, and a second nearby public parking garage.

Managing parking

Parking should not be a problem for UConn parkers and other Front Street visitors, said Michael Freimuth, who heads the Capital Region Development Authority (CRDA), whose quasi-public predecessor provided funding to create Front Street and the Connecticut Convention Center. Freimuth said CRDA has "been diligently working on the parking situation.''

Freimuth says Front Street's two public garages, built to serve its restaurants and entertainment venues, have plenty of vacancy most days, and certainly on evenings and weekends. Indeed, he says barely half the Convention Center garage's 2,600 indoor and surface spaces are full on days when no major events are scheduled.

If necessary, the Convention Center spaces, plus parking at the nearby Connecticut Science Center could take up the slack, Freimuth said. Counting the garages at the Convention Center, Science Center, and the two Front Street garages, there are nearly 4,000 public-parking spaces available.

"Not all UConn students come at the same time,'' Freimuth said. "The demand is spread over the day into the evening … and not all students are on campus every day.''

As for the CRDA's garages, "UConn parking, in essence, fills them and makes good on a major public investment already in place without repeating the endless practice and expense of more and more garages. … The trick today is to manage parking, not simply building more and more of it,'' Freimuth said.

Any additional parking revenue CRDA collects from its Front Street garages goes not into CRDA coffers, but into the state's, to repay the bonds sold to finance their construction, Freimuth said.

Hincks, the Infinity Music Hall owner, says the 800 or so spaces available in Travelers' adjoining parking garage, plus around 250 more in the Front Street garage that LAZ Parking manages, should be ample on Infinity's concert nights.

Also, he said, the Convention Center parking is being reserved for UConn, relieving pressure most days on other parking venues.

Fresh start

Infinity, too, is eager to cash in on UConn's downtown arrival. Starting in late August, when the campus opens, through yearend, Infinity will offer anyone affiliated with UConn a 17 percent discount on meals and drinks, Hincks said. Starting Sept. 1, anyone enrolled in a Connecticut college will get a 10 percent discount.

Infinity also plans in August to change its name to "Infinity Craft Bar & Bistro," to reflect its new focus on craft beers, spirits and cocktails, including one named "The UConn Howl,'' and to expand food-and-beverage operations, now limited only to concert days, from Wednesday through Sunday.

His venue, too, is on the waitlist for UConn to review its application to accept Husky Bucks.

In addition, Hincks says he expects to hire 15 more employees from among UConn's downtown pupils, some of whom will be graduate students, as waitstaff, kitchen workers and bartenders, to handle the extra patron volume.

Qdoba Mexican Eats also hopes to accept Husky Bucks just as it does the University of Hartford's "Hawk Cash'' for its breakfast, lunch and dinner menus, said Jeff Badger, district manager for Connecticut.

On top of college pupils, Qdoba is currently pilot-testing, Badger said, a concept in which worshipers who attend a monthly church service in one of Spotlight's cinema rooms, dine afterwards on a catered lunch at Qdoba. UConn and other local colleges could use its dining room for meetings and special occasions.

"We've got a large space inside,'' Badger said, "so seating can be reconfigured for groups.''

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