|The Hartford Courant, Conn.|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Aug. 21, 2004 - A key partner in the plan to convert the vacant Hastings Hotel and Conference Center into a cooking school has pulled out, casting doubt on whether the much-anticipated deal will go forward.
The school, the Connecticut Culinary Institute, also faces higher than expected renovation costs and concerns about the safety of its staff and students in Hartford's Asylum Hill neighborhood.
But a spokeswoman for the school, now located in Farmington, said late Friday that the school is still "actively pursuing avenues" to put together a deal for the Hastings.
"We've not scrapped these plans," said Brooke Baran, the school's spokeswoman and daughter of the owner.
Baran said one of the partners in the deal, developer Adam Winstanley of Winstanley Enterprises in Concord, Mass., pulled out of the partnership earlier this month. She declined to comment on the reasons for his departure, and Winstanley couldn't be reached for comment late Friday.
In a blow to the neighborhood, the Hastings abruptly ended operations Dec. 30, throwing more than 100 people out of work and forcing other businesses in the building to close. The culinary school plan bolstered hopes for the area.
The partnership, which also included Brad Baran, who owns the school, had reached a tentative agreement to purchase the Hastings from Aetna, the mortgage holder, for a price in the range of $8 million to $10 million.
The school had planned to reopen the building's 55,000 square feet of conference space and its first-floor restaurant. It planned to build new kitchens for teaching students how to become cooks and chefs.
Even if a new deal is put together, the school has raised new concerns about the location since the plans were first disclosed in May.
The building may need a new roof, pushing up renovation costs. Baran couldn't provide a comparison between what renovations were originally expected to cost and the current estimates.
Baran also said the school has been working with the city to address concerns about the safety of its students and staff. Some progress, she said, had been made in discussions about locating a satellite police station in the building.
Baran denied a report in this week's Hartford Advocate saying the deal was dead.
Still, news that the school has suffered a major setback surprised neighborhood activists and officials, who said school staff came to a neighborhood revitalization zone meeting two months ago and sounded very positive about the location.
They said they understood the school's cost concerns, which would be a consideration for anyone who wanted to renovate the property.
But they said they did not understand why security would be an issue.
"See, that's the problem, because when the hotel was there, they didn't seem to have a problem with it, so to my knowledge that corner is not that bad at all," said Sabrina Flintroy, a member of Hartford's Neighborhood Revitalization Board. "If the hotel didn't think it was a good spot, they wouldn't have been there for a long period of time."
Flintroy pointed out that there are a number of small restaurants and other food businesses in the area, including a restaurant that was in the Hastings itself before the hotel closed.
"If the hotel thought it was good enough for a hotel, then it should be good enough for a school," she said.
The cooking school is facing a space crunch at its campus in Farmington, and its current lease expires at the end of the year. The school had hoped to move into the Hastings next month.
The property was attractive because the Hastings' 271 rooms would house more than 200 students -- an option not available in Farmington.
Baran said there may be options if the school can't buy the building. Those might include a lease or a lease with an option to buy.
An Aetna spokesman could not be reached for comment late Friday.
By Kenneth R. Gosselin and Stacy Wong
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