It was like the '80s again at Asylum
and Trumbull streets Friday night, as Whalers fans flooded the bars
and the old Civic Center to honor three warhorses from the heyday
of a defunct hockey team.
Come to think of it, that was the last
time cranes lifted beams for a new downtown high-rise.
So here it all was, for one glorious
evening: the green, white and blue jerseys, the timeless zeal of
decked-out fans like Alan and Diane Victor, even a 36-story apartment
building under construction - attached to the Civic Center.
Also attached to the building, but
absent from the city on Friday, were two very large personalities
driving an outsized dream to bring a big-league Whalers team back
to Connecticut's capital city.
Their strategies are at odds, but developer
Larry Gottesdiener and former Whalers owner Howard Baldwin have
separately energized the faithful for yet another round of "we
can do it."
That's great. Excitement and confidence
in Hartford are not exactly in the same abundant supply as, say,
aura and mystique at Yankee Stadium.
But in harsh daylight, with the "Brass
Bonanza" Whalers theme faded and the bars closed, the dream
is at best distant, at the moment unrealistic and perhaps even hurtful
to the real needs of the city's renaissance.
Hurtful, that is, if the polity turns
its limited money and attention toward ice, pucks, sticks and a
huge new building instead of focusing on jobs, housing, education
and the storefront-by-storefront rebuilding that downtown desperately
This, from a lifetime sports fan who
was at Shea when Buckner choked, in the Gahden when Bird stole the
ball and at The Stadium when the Bar-Mitzvah boy caught Jeter's
home run: Big-league teams that need taxpayer arena subsidies and
make a profit only in good years are fabulous luxuries. They are
not economic engines.
Backers of the National Hockey League
dream see a Whalers franchise fitting perfectly with the city's
renaissance. A big-league team would make people want to be here,
and that would attract companies that would hire more people, and
soon the only difference between Hartford and Seattle would be the
size of the oysters.
That theory makes some sense, some
of the time, in some places. Hartford certainly needs to find ways
to attract people and make itself more city-like. That's happening,
Still, there seems to be an obsession
with creating urban vibrancy for its own sake around here, as if
vibrancy is the same as economic vitality. It isn't. While both
are important, it is emerging industries, top-notch education, pedestrian-friendly
downtowns and intelligently planned housing that add up to economic
Those things lead to packed restaurants,
lines at retail counters and the natural arrival of sports franchises.
Without those fundamentals, the vibrancy is store-bought and short-lived.
Consider: If every hockey fan at every game spent $50 outside the
arena, that would still only add up to $25 million a year - a blip
in the region's economy. And almost all of it would have been spent
anyway at the likes of the Avon Old Farms Inn.
"The state's got to invest in
economic development," said Robert Flynn, executive director
of the insurance and financial services industry cluster, which
is aimed at helping that sector grow. "We have to pay attention
to it. We don't pay attention to it."
Donald Williams, D-Killingly, the state
Senate president pro tem, also urges a disciplined game plan.
"I think we took our eye off the
ball when the proposal to buy the Patriots came to town, and when
we planned Adriaen's Landing," Williams said. "We probably
should have paid more attention to other economic sectors."
Let's be clear. These guys, along with
most of us, would love to have a Whalers franchise back. The question
is, at what expense, under what conditions?
Job growth in Greater Hartford has
been basically flat for years. The office vacancy rate downtown,
according to Cushman & Wakefield and CB Richard Ellis, is OK,
not great, and overall it's not moving in the right direction.
In short, the old-fashioned approach
to growth fits Hartford in 2006 better than the dream-is-in-our-grasp-now
Funny thing is, both Baldwin and Gottesdiener
firmly subscribe to that sober approach. Both men correctly insist
that the NHL goal is years away and would require proof of great
progress before it could happen.
Trouble is, their messages are being
heard as "Whalers now," in part because both men have
plans requiring firm action now. Baldwin wants to step in and help
the current minor league Hartford Wolf Pack (now run by Madison
Square Garden, which owns the New York Rangers hockey team) to roughly
double its paid attendance from an anemic average of 5,000 fans
a game. That would prove to the NHL that Hartford is worthy.
He'd like to upgrade the Civic Center.
"Build the market back through
the team that you have in the arena that you have," Baldwin
said Friday from California, where he was because he didn't want
to "grandstand" at the Civic Center. "I never want
to make it look like I'm trying to be insulting to MSG or the Rangers,
but the fact is, it ought to be in the top of the rankings."
Gottesdiener wants to help the state
finance a $250 million arena for basketball and hockey on the northern
edge of downtown, with $25 million of his own - the better to attract
a big-league team. That, he said, would solve all sorts of other
planning conundrums that have plagued the city for decades.
"I think an arena is not taking
the eye off the ball," he said.
Maybe not, but it's a steep public
investment for a city that has already tapped state taxpayers deeply.
And the fact is, Hartford has a decidedly mixed history as a sports
Hartford would be far, far worse off
had either or both of these guys passed over the city in their careers.
If they keep doing what they're doing - a former owner promoting
hockey here and elsewhere, a developer pouring hundreds of millions
into downtown housing and office space - the time may someday be
right again for that annoyingly lovable "Brass Bonanza."
Friday night lifted the civic soul.
Fans old and young made all the old sounds. "They've proven
that they can support Hartford Whalers," said a smiling Alan
M. Victor of New Britain, president of the Hartford Whalers Booster
It was almost enough to win over an
economic skeptic. Almost.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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