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Economic Development, Urban Planning, Project Management

by Ken Gosselin on Hartford Courant

When she was in her 20s, Jackie McKinney, who is now the chairperson of the Asylum Hill Neighborhood Association, would go to the old Aetna Diner on Farmington Avenue.

The diner — which has gone through several ownership and name changes and is most commonly known as The Comet — has laid fallow and decaying for over 15 years.

At a press conference Thursday, McKinney said she couldn’t wait to have another meal at the historic building once again.

“There is no place in Asylum Hill to sit down and have dinner,” she said. “That’s crazy.”

House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, state Sen. Douglas McCrory and Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin announced that the Asylum Hill Neighborhood Association was receiving a $1.2 million grant from the state’s Community Investment Fund 2030 to remediate and renovate the historic building.

The funding will address one of Hartford’s numerous brownfields . Connecticut law defines a brownfield as: “any abandoned or underutilized site where redevelopment, reuse or expansion has not occurred due to the presence or potential presence of pollution in the buildings, soil or groundwater that requires investigation or remediation before or in conjunction with the restoration, redevelopment, reuse and expansion of the property.”

Highlighting the importance of the project, more than 30 people from the Asylum Hill neighborhood attended the particularly joyous press conference and broke out into laughter and applause frequently.

Bronin has a noteworthy attachment to the vintage stainless steel diner, having attended his first political meeting at what was then Dishes 15 years ago.

But the project, Bronin said, was more significant than just preserving the building — which is on the national and state registries of historic places. It’s about preserving the historic character of the entire Asylum Hill neighborhood, which is home to the Mark Twain House & Museum and the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center.

“This is a neighborhood that is so rich with culture and with history,” Bronin said. “Part of its history is this landmark building right back here. We stand in a historic district, this is a historic building. Because of this grant, we’ve got the opportunity together to bring this history back to life: to fix it up, to make it an asset again, to make it a gathering place again. To make it a small business again that creates jobs and creates employment. All of those things become possible when we commit to projects like this. …

“When you have a historic property that’s fallen into disrepair, the economics don’t work on their own, but the value is so much bigger than just opening a restaurant. This is about preserving history, it’s about honoring history. … That deserves public commitment, that deserves public investment.”

The public investment was made possible by the recently created CIF, which will provide grants to 20 municipalities, including Middletown, New Haven and Bridgeport, in the coming months, Ritter said.

“What is so unique about the Community Investment Fund is that it is a bottom-up approach to financing local projects and not always a top-to-bottom approach,” Ritter said. “The down payment on this project came from an application that was submitted by local NRZ with input from the community, saying, ‘If there was one major project you thought could make a big difference on the corridor, what would it be?’ That application was reviewed neutrally by the department of economic and community development and received a very high score in a competitive process that saw over 150 applications.

As much as I, the mayor and the senator would love to take credit for everything. You all had just as much a role in making this happen as we did. … When we started [the CIF] there were a lot of doubters. … I had one person from my own party tell me, ‘This is the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard.’ … I can tell you If this is failure, well then I’d love to see success because this is a real special day in the city of Hartford.”

McCrory credited developer Wayne Benjamin, the principal in Triumph Venture Capital LLC of Windsor, the owner of the diner, for his perseverance and dedication to the project.

McCrory said Benjamin approached him six or seven years ago with a plan to rehabilitate the diner. Benjamin, a former city development official, quietly acquired the 0.20-acre property and building at 267 Farmington Ave. in 2017 for $39,000.

In 2019, Benjamin announced his plans to renovate the building, which included installing an elevator and a new roof. Securing financing was an issue, as was the pandemic, which put plans on hold for a couple of years.

However, Benjamin and the Asylum Hill Neighborhood Association persisted, securing $1.2 million from the CIF.

“Senator McCrory, I sat you down a few years ago and told you about it, and told you we were going to get it done, and here we are today, and it’s going to get done,” Benjamin said. “This is an exciting project.”

Benjamin said the work, which also includes installing a charging station for electric cars as well as a bike rack, would hopefully begin before the end of the year. Construction, Benjamin said, would take about six to nine months, with a target for opening sometime by the end of the third quarter of 2023.

Whatever kind of restaurant opens, it will add to the rich history of the building, which was transported to Hartford from New Jersey in three sections in the 1940s and bolted together in a prefabricated style. The previous owner, Helen Vlecides, and her late husband, Gus, operated the Aetna Diner — later the Aetna Restaurant — for four decades until the 1980s.

The Vlecides once served the likes of entertainers Eddie Fisher, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Telly Savalas. In the 1970s, the diner was a favorite of then-Gov. Ella Grasso, who hired the owners to cater events at the governor’s mansion.

The Comet opened its doors in 1984 and tapped into the diner’s retro roots, stripping off later additions, including a mansard roof, to reveal the structure’s original chrome and steel dome. After a successful run, the Comet was followed by the Oasis and Mississippi Bar and Grill. In the early 2000s, an attempt to resurrect the diner as Dishes was short-lived, though the structure still bears the name over the front entrance.

“We’re going to get ourselves back into the groove of things,” McKinney said. “This is very special to me.”

Courant senior reporter Ken Gosselin contributed to this story.

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