Convention Center is closing kitchen; Southbridge didn't draw DOD diners.

Byline: John Dignam SOUTHBRIDGE -- The Southbridge Hotel and Convention Center will close its kitchen, restaurant and bar on Dec. 20 because the center's primary tenants, federal employees, have not used the food service to the extent expected. ``Closing the food service will bring us closer to breaking even, so that we will no longer be hemorrhaging money,'' said Charles F. Norton Jr. of Southbridge LLC, owners of the property. ``We will go from losing money to not losing money. It will allow us to put ourselves in a more financially stable position.'' The center lost $1.5 million last year and is projecting a loss of about half a million dollars this year, he said. Southbridge Associates LLC, the real estate arm of American Optical Co., financed the construction of the $84 million, 200-room, 315,000-square-foot hotel and convention center. It is on Mechanic Street at the Southbridge Business Center. The closing will mean the loss of jobs for 52 people, about half the center's staff. The center will honor existing contracts by catering those events. The fitness center will remain open. Mr. Norton said terminating food service ``eliminates a major chunk of our costs,'' but he said he expected it also would make the facility less attractive to government and private customers. Southbridge Economic Development Director Cassandra M. Acly was surprised yesterday to learn of the closing. ``I had lunch there today,'' she said. ``I'm so disappointed. This town needs restaurants.'' Area residents' support of the Visions Restaurant and Shades Lounge was better than expected, according to Mr. Norton, but it was not enough to offset the loss of federal employees' business, which had been expected to account for 75 percent of food service costs. The public brought in between one-half and $1 million, Mr. Norton said. But federal employees were expected to spend $2.5 million and spent only one tenth of that. Under a 20-year contract with the hotel and...

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