HARTFORD — Hundreds of guests streamed through the doors of Infinity Music Hall & Bistro for its grand opening Thursday, with every expectation that the music venue will provide a major boost to the city's nightlife.
But whether that happens will depend on the many people who weren't there — the ticket buyers.
"We hope the public does its part and attends these great shows," said Dan Hincks, Infinity Hall's founder.
A lot is riding on the success of Front Street's largest venue. Infinity Hall is seen as the anchor of the entertainment district. The city views the music hall as key to attracting more visitors to downtown, especially at night. Taxpayers are hoping that a state investment of more than $1 million will pay off.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, speaking at the grand opening, said he believes that Infinity Hall will live up to all the anticipation, which has been building during 17 months of construction. Hincks and Infinity have a proven track record at their first venue in Norfolk, Malloy said.
"We've seen it succeed in Norfolk though some of the toughest economic times," Malloy said. Infinity opened in 2008, "only to be followed in Connecticut shortly after that by the Great Recession. But to not only survive that, but to increase its footprint here, is remarkable."
The market for such a venue in Hartford is untested, but Hincks said he expects that the Hartford location will draw from all age categories. The demographics of central Connecticut, however, are skewed to the younger end of the spectrum, unlike the market for Infinity Hall's Norfolk location.
Hincks said he hopes to tap into a market that doesn't regularly make the drive to Norfolk. Income levels in Greater Hartford also are high enough to support the venue, Hincks said.
Tickets will range in price from under $20 to $90 or $100, Hincks said. Infinity Hall expects 250 shows a year, with about 80 already booked for the coming months, into 2015. Parking in either Front Street garage is $5 after 5 p.m.
Infinity Hall will feature all genres of music, from blues, jazz and rock to country and pop. Toad the Wet Sprocket will be the first concert, on Aug. 28, with Paula Poundstone, Herb Alpert and Suzanne Vega also booked.
Thursday's mood was certainly celebratory. Guests sipped on "Purple Haze" Champagne cocktails — a concoction of Champagne, lemonade and strawberry liqueur — and admired the maple-paneled walls and proscenium of the main concert hall. Hincks gave tours showing off a room for private events, decorated with a guitar signed by Bo Diddley, on loan from a private collector.
Workers in the bistro were in a huddle with their manager, getting ready for the lunch crowd. Lunch will be served during the week, while dinner will be offered seven days a week, even on nights when there isn't a show, Hincks said. Dinner entrees ranged from $17 for a Crispy Cheese & Beet Crepe to $28 for Jambalaya Risotto.
Acoustic guitarist Jonathan Edwards performed a duet with Hincks' brother, Rob.
Constructing a 400-seat orchestra section and a 100-seat mezzanine required carving out an existing concrete floor and digging down nearly 5 feet. A major structural beam had to be moved because it would have been in the middle of the performance space.
Those structural changes — plus other delays in the project — helped push up an initial estimated cost of $5 million to $6.8 million. The state is close to finalizing an additional $500,000 loan through the state Department of Economic and Community Development, on top of $1.3 million already approved by the State Bond Commission. The balance of the increase is coming from investors, Hincks said.
Funding proved to be the biggest challenge, Hincks said, "making sure that we were well-financed. I love the creative side, but going out and getting the money was essential."
Few would have imagined this much hubbub at Front Street just a few years ago. After years of delays and a change in scope and developer, Front Street began construction in 2008. The shell of the buildings was finished in 2010. Then the buildings stayed vacant for two years. Front Street's original opening was intended to be timed to the opening of the Connecticut Convention Center in 2005.
In late 2012, Spotlight Theatres opened a four-screen movie theater, and the Capital Grille, an upscale steakhouse, began welcoming diners last summer. This year, two more restaurants — Ted's Montana Grill and Nixs, a seafood restaurant — opened, the latter just a week ago.
Of a total of 60,000 square feet at Front Street, less than 15,000 remains vacant.
"Each time we come here, it's 'Wow, this,' 'Wow, that,'" Helen Nitkin, who heads Greenwich-based HB Nitkin Group, the developer of Front Street, said at Thursday's grand opening. "It's happened."
Nitkin added:, "Infinity Hall brings a very big energy level and will make people want to come to Hartford in the evenings."
Just to the west, the five-story Front Street apartments are under construction and the University of Connecticut plans to open a regional campus at the renovated Hartford Times building in 2017.
Hincks had first looked at Hartford to open a music hall but later settled on Norfolk as a better fit for Infinity's first venue.
Joe Savage, president of Webster Bank, an Infinity Hall sponsor, looked around the concert hall during his remarks at the grand opening ceremonies.
"I'm not polishing anyone's apple," Savage said, "but this place is gorgeous."