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Panel Seeks To Refine Civic Center Plans

January 18, 2007
By JEFFREY B. COHEN, Courant Staff Writer

When it comes to the future of the Hartford Civic Center and the potential to bring major league hockey back to the city, the Connecticut Development Authority wants to get the best deal possible.

So instead of picking one of the three proposals to take over the center, the authority's first step will be to go back to the three bidders to ask a simple question:

Is this the best you can do?

As it does, the authority will also figure out which aspects of each proposal it likes the best, come up with a sense of an ideal plan, and, eventually, consider asking the three teams to match it, or to come close. Down the road, it might even ask some or all of the companies to enter a deal together.

"The whole process of competitive negotiation is intended to move two or three proposers in increments and see with which one you end up having the best overall outcome," Scott L. Murphy, the authority's legal counsel, told the board at a meeting Wednesday. "It's a process designed to create the best opportunity and the best deal for the [authority], as steward of the public interest."

The authority met to begin considering the three proposals to operate the center until 2013 and to possibly remake its long-term future. The bidders are the current operator, Madison Square Garden; a partnership between downtown's largest landowner, Northland Investment Corp., and AEG Worldwide of Los Angeles; and a partnership between former Whalers owner Howard Baldwin and Global Spectrum of Philadelphia.

When it came to hockey, the three groups had three different plans: MSG stressed the American Hockey League's long-term viability in Hartford; Baldwin emphasized the AHL as a building block to the National Hockey League; and Northland's Lawrence R. Gottesdiener said the way to go is to buy an NHL team now.

But the proposals touched on much more than hockey, and the authority wants to cherry pick.

"We like all the best features of each one," said board Chairman L. Scott Frantz. They like Baldwin's goal of rebuilding the hockey market with the AHL first and looking later to the NHL; they like Northland's commitment to Hartford; they like MSG's track record and performance.

"What we should be looking for is the best deal for the [authority]. We should also keep in mind that this is a very public project that means a lot to the region, the city, the state and to hockey fans," Frantz said. "So we do have a bit of a social responsibility aspect to this."

The meeting began with Murphy telling the authority that it has a lot of latitude.

"The proposal is just the starting point," Murphy said. "Your hands are not tied by the initial proposals."

Murphy then told the authority that outside parties had little grounds to complain short of evidence of fraud, collusion or favoritism.

After presentations of brief staff analyses of the three proposals, some board members suggested the best option might be to pair the strength of MSG's nearly 10 years of experience in the market and the arena with one of the other partnerships, which seem more bent on the long-term vision.

"Personally, I like the ability of MSG. I think they've done a very good job," said board Vice Chairman Richard T. Mulready. "But I like opening up the possibility of bigger and broader options with either Northland or Baldwin or some combination of the two."

But the authority eventually backed off the thought that it would immediately work to broker a deal between any of the parties. Its first goal is to figure out what it considers to be its ideal proposal.

"I wouldn't rule out any combination of any of the groups; I wouldn't rule out any one of them individually," said board member Arlo E. Ellison. "I think we need to be negotiating from a position where we know at least conceptually what kind of deal we would like to do and what we think would be in the best interest of the public."

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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