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Change Upsets Civic Center Rivals

Partner Swap Draws Fire

January 10, 2007
By JEFFREY B. COHEN, Courant Staff Writer

A last-minute partnership change in one of three proposals to take over the Hartford Civic Center has one competitor crying foul, state officials asking questions, and downtown's largest landowner pleading his case.

In the short run, the state is looking for someone to help reduce its $4 million annual loss at the downtown arena. But the Civic Center is widely considered outdated and ill-suited for major league sports, and longer-term plans for the site are under discussion by a broad range of private developers and public officials.

But one of the bidders - Northland Investment Corp., which is run by Lawrence R. Gottesdiener and which owns more than $500 million in downtown Hartford real estate - has replaced its major partner in his bid, prompting questions.

Frank E. Russo Jr. - whose company, Global Spectrum, is working with former Whalers owner Howard Baldwin - said the move is highly unusual and thinks Northland should be disqualified.

"I don't know why it was done at the last minute, why they were allowed to change it in the last minute," said Russo. "It's a big question in my mind."

Gottesdiener defended his company's actions.

"Our core proposal is identical," Gottesdiener said Tuesday. "The underlying spirit of fair dealing is that you can't change the economics and the merits of your proposal after the fact. That is unequivocally not what we're doing."

The Connecticut Development Authority, which is scheduled to hold a meeting today to hear presentations on the three Civic Center proposals, will ask questions today about the nature of the change in Gottesdiener's plan, said Marie O'Brien, the authority's executive director.

"It depends on how the RFP [request for proposal] was written and the leeway that you have in contractual negotiations," said O'Brien, when asked whether the authority would allow Gottesdiener's bid to proceed with a new partner.

"Until we understand what they are actually requesting and what the impact is to their proposal, we don't have any idea as to whether their proposal becomes invalid."

The bidders include the current operator, Madison Square Garden; a partnership between Northland and its new partner, AEG Worldwide of Los Angeles; and the Baldwin/Global Spectrum partnership.

MSG, which has the region's AHL franchise, wants to continue managing the center, has pledged to keep the Wolf Pack in Hartford through 2013, and has offered to revise its current contract to leave more money in state hands.

Gottesdiener - who says he is about to have talks with two NHL teams and one NBA team about buying those teams - wants to own an AHL team and improve programming in the short term. But in the long term he wants to knock the Civic Center down, build a bigger arena, and bring back the NHL.

"Northland has unequivocally stated since December 2005 that our first priority is to bring back the NHL," Gottesdiener said. "We're not interested in this for AHL hockey."

He said he changed partners because the original company he was working with, SMG, was unable to move forward with the plan.

Baldwin wants to rebuild the city's market for the American Hockey League, and he wants to do it with a minor league team called the Hartford Whalers. He says his long-term goal is the NHL, too. But he's realistic, he said.

"Anybody that thinks you can go out and buy an NHL team today with the way the market is is just totally naïve," Baldwin said. "If I'm wrong, if somebody can do it today and bring it there today, I'd be the happiest guy in the world and I'd happily buy season tickets."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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