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New Focus For Future Of Center

Agency To Seek Ideas From Private Investors

January 12, 2006
By JEFFREY B. COHEN, Courant Staff Writer

As talk of a new hockey team in a new arena circulates around Hartford, the state agency that operates the Hartford Civic Center changed its focus Wednesday. Instead of just studying possible future uses for the center, the agency will solicit proposals and ideas from private investors.

The move comes only weeks after the Connecticut Development Authority decided on a long-term study, angering those pressing for a more immediate solution to what they see as a declining hockey market and a state investment that loses $4 million a year.

In what some see as a change of direction, the board voted 8-2 to hire a consultant for a "process to seek potential investors to oversee the [Civic Center]."

"Come in with your very best ideas," board Chairman L. Scott Frantz said Wednesday. "Any party out there who is interested in the Civic Center, come to the CDA with your very best offer. We have an open mind, an open playing field, and if there are offers out there that make great sense for the people of Connecticut and the city of Hartford, we will entertain them."

In December, the authority voted "to engage a consultant to perform a study for the board regarding the best course of action for the future of the Hartford Civic Center."

Since that vote, the authority's staff concluded that a comprehensive study would take too much time. "They realized ... that that's going to take a long time," Richard T. Mulready, the board's vice chairman, said. "You're talking six, eight, nine months to do a full-scale feasibility study.

"It clearly is a redirection," Mulready said. "But it was based on two or three weeks of work, and thinking through the steps that had to be taken, and thinking what was the best way to proceed."

The authority hopes to have the process underway in six to eight weeks, so that proposals can be considered by June.

The city owns the Civic Center, and the state has a lease on it that runs through 2013. According to the authority, the state could lose $30 million on the deal by the end of the lease.

The state now has a contract with Madison Square Garden to operate the Civic Center which also goes through 2013. MSG owns the Hartford Wolf Pack, the New York Rangers' AHL farm team.

For several years, former Whalers owner Howard Baldwin has hawked the idea of bringing the National Hockey League back to Hartford. Most recently, Baldwin has offered to pay for the lease with the city, do capital improvements on the building, and attempt to bring back major league hockey should his new American Hockey League team succeed.

Then there is Lawrence R. Gottesdiener, who is head of Northland Investment Corp., developer of the Hartford 21 luxury residential tower at the Civic Center, and has a Hartford real estate portfolio worth roughly $500 million. Gottesdiener recently floated the idea of building a $250 million sports and entertainment arena in the city, with $25 million of his own money and the rest as public financing. He would try to bring an NHL team, as well.

Gottesdiener's company also has first right of refusal on the Civic Center should the city choose to sell it. But should Gottesdiener come to the authority with the same proposal he recently made public, he would be directed elsewhere, officials said.

"We don't have the ability to do that," Mulready said, referring to a new arena. That would fall to the city. "But we can point him in the right direction."

On Wednesday, Chuck Coursey, spokesman for Gottesdiener, said, "We're pleased CDA is moving the process forward. Northland believes we may be able to address the coliseum's short-term challenges while also focusing on the long-term goal of replacing the coliseum, bringing vitality back to that site and building a new, state-of-the-art coliseum."

Baldwin said he was happy to hear of the authority's change of direction. "I'm glad they're not going to take a year and a half, and all I can say is that the quicker they do their studies and prepare, the better it is," he said. "Time is of the essence."

House Speaker James Amann, D-Milford, said he was supportive of the open-market approach. "Because the thing that I don't want is that there are two or three investors ready to go and you're going to drag this bureaucratic system out, and they're going to go away."

At the meeting Wednesday, the board had two options on the table: to hire a consultant to handle the process of seeking investors for the Civic Center, or to hire a consultant to conduct "an independent feasibility analysis."

Mulready outlined what he saw as the "pros" and "cons" of both, saying that the market-based approach was quicker, potentially less expensive and market driven. The "con" would be that the authority wouldn't come up with its own, large-scale market analysis.

Board member Jack Orchulli voted in favor of the market-based approach.

"I believe our overall interest here is to cut our losses on the Civic Center," he said.

But Philip Smith, undersecretary of the state's Office of Policy and Management, voted against the plan.

"I voted for a course last meeting," he said, referring to the long-term study, "and I have not seen anything since the last meeting that convinces me we should change the course."

After the meeting, Frantz said the board's decision was not influenced by any outside political pressure.

"If the question is, `Are we acting independently here?' the answer is definitely yes," Frantz said.

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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