In the dozen years that the landmark Hartford Times building has stood vacant, there has been only one serious proposal to redevelop the property. And that one didn't work out.
Now, in the space of a few months, there are two more.
The proposal has formidable competition from another, by Front Street developer HB Nitkin Group, which wants to move the University of Connecticut's Greater Hartford campus in West Hartford to downtown Hartford. Nitkin has the development rights to the building.
Both the city of Hartford and the Capital Region Development Authority confirmed Monday that they have been approached by a brewery interested in the Times building, but officials declined to identify the operator. The source, however, said it was Hooker Brewing.
Company President Curt Cameron said Monday that the brewery is indeed looking for a new place to grow the business to include a restaurant, but he would not confirm if he was interested in the Times building.
Hooker Brewing, which opened in 2007 and is named after one of Connecticut's founders, has expanded twice in two years to keep up with demand for its own beers as well as for beers it makes under contract for a half-dozen other craft-brewers in New England and New York.
The city supports the vision for a brewery as a way to continue expanding the Front Street entertainment district deeper into the heart of the city, said Thomas E. Deller, Hartford's development chief.
"Front Street has been dedicated to entertainment, and it brings the connection back to Main Street," Deller said. "We're trying to think of other ways to bring people up to Main Street."
The brewery has proven itself as a destination point, even in its off-the-beaten-path location in an industrial park just over the line from Hartford's North End.
In an effort to spread the word about Hooker, the brewery has long offered Friday night tastings and Saturday brewery tours. The events drew thousands of visitors annually even before a $400,000 expansion in 2011 that included nearly doubling the number of brewing tanks from nine to 17 and the creation of a 2,200-square-foot entertainment area designed to increase the number of visitors and attract corporate events.
Cameron said that there have been more than 27,000 visitors to the brewery since January 2012 and that the entertainment area has been rented out more than 120 times for corporate events since then.
"It's not just about brewing capacity but also visitors," Cameron said of the need to move to a bigger location.
Deller said the city has concerns about relocating the UConn campus to the Times building. The city doesn't believe there is ample room for further expansion or enough options for parking, he said.
Michael W. Freimuth, executive director of the regional development authority, said Nitkin is vigorously pursuing the UConn proposal. "Nitkin's pending bid for UConn is paramount," Freimuth said.
Nitkin did not return an email or a phone call seeking comment Monday.
The Times building is on a short list of finalists for relocating UConn's campus to downtown Hartford. One other site is One Talcott Plaza, just north of the former G. Fox & Co. building on Main Street. The city has said it favors a UConn move to this area because it would spark further development just north of downtown.
Freimuth said the development agreement for the Times building calls for housing. Although that would have to be changed if the property was chosen for the UConn campus, the agreement would have to be changed more significantly if the brewery was to move in. The authority also would need to understand better how the manufacturing operations would work, especially how the brewery would distribute its beer from the site.
In 2012 Hooker produced about 10,000 barrels of beer, which is the equivalent of 137,000 cases. The beer is distributed in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York City, Pennsylvania and northern New Jersey. In Connecticut, the Hooker brand of 11 beers is distributed by Hartford Distributors, which also distributes beer behemoth Budweiser and its sister beverages.
The brewery and UConn plans both would require an expansion to the 93-year-old Times building.
Constructed in 1920, the facade of the beaux-arts style structure is dominated by six soaring Ionic green granite columns and a terra-cotta cornice salvaged from the demolition of a church in New York. The facade served as a backdrop for campaign speeches by Presidents Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.
Since The Hartford Times newspaper folded in 1976, the building has been used for corporate and city offices. Ownership has changed several times, the last in 2000, when the state bought the property from the city for $8 million for the Adriaen's Landing project.
After the paper died, the building was renovated twice, in the early 1980s, and again a decade later. The building was last used as annex for Hartford City Hall. At the time, the city's pension fund owned the property. After moving out, the city sold the building to the state.
The last redevelopment plan for the Times building was in the mid-2000s when the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art planned to expand into the space. Those plans collapsed in 2007 when the Atheneum determined the plan was too expensive, mushrooming from $15 million to $20 million.