|By Tom Puleo, The Hartford Courant, Conn.|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
May 19, 2004 - Hartford needs a shot of youthful energy, and the Connecticut Culinary Institute in Farmington needs more space.
Both needs would be met under the small cooking school's plan to move to Hartford and remake the vacant Hastings Hotel and Conference Center into a new campus.
"It's a big step -- it takes CCI and really puts us in a different realm," Brooke Baran, the school's director of public relations, said Tuesday.
Through a business partnership called WE 85 Sigourney Street, the school has 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 partnership includes Brad Baran, who owns the school, and developer Adam Winstanley of Winstanley Enterprises in Concord, Mass.
The Hastings, where Bill Clinton stayed during the 1996 presidential debate, closed abruptly in December after its owner fell behind on mortgage payments. The Dallas-based Olympus Real Estate Corp. owed Aetna more than $7.5 million.
If plans hold firm, the institute would close its original campus at 230 Farmington Ave. and move to Asylum Hill west of downtown.
The school plans to reopen the building's 55,000 square feet of conference space and its first-floor restaurant. It would build new kitchens for teaching students how to become cooks and chefs.
The 271 hotel rooms would house more than 200 students -- an option the school has not been able to offer in Farmington. The plan would not affect the school's Suffield campus, which does offer housing to students.
"The city brings to our students a much different way of life," Baran said. "They will have a choice of an urban or rural setting."
Aetna spokesman Fred Laberge declined to discuss the plan, saying it was too early in the process.
The school plans to get the hotel ready for the fall semester. It teaches about 500 students, preparing them for culinary arts careers. The school already had started searching for a bigger site when the Hastings closed.
"In some ways, it seemed too good to be true," Baran said.
Hartford Mayor Eddie A. Perez has been working with Aetna to find a new owner. The area's "campus" zoning is compatible with the proposed use.
Matt Hennessy, the mayor's chief of staff, said the plan is ideal for the city.
"It's the perfect opportunity to keep a banquet facility and a restaurant," he said. "It's great for Asylum Hill too. It's a real benefit to have an added influx of young folks in that area."
Farmington Town Council Chairman Bruce A. Chudwick said he's sorry to see the institute leave Farmington, but understands its desire for larger facilities.
"We'll definitely miss them in town, but it sounds like they're moving on to a larger space to accommodate their needs," he said. "It's too bad for Farmington, but it's great for Hartford."
The abrupt closing of the Hastings left more then 100 people without jobs and angered local and state officials. Attorney General Richard Blumenthal and Perez filed a lawsuit against the owner and manager, alleging they violated a federal law requiring at least 60 days' notice of a mass layoff. The status of the lawsuit was not immediately available Tuesday.
Aetna built the facility in 1985 for about $50 million as a training center before converting it to a hotel and conference center.
Courant Staff Writer David Owens contributed to this story.
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(c) 2004, The Hartford Courant, Conn. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News. AET,