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Uplift City, Then Think Hockey

March 24, 2007
By STAN SIMPSON, Courant Staff Writer

Lawrence Gottesdiener knows as much about major league hockey as I do, which ain't saying much. The next sports arena he builds will be his first.

But Hartford's largest private property owner - about $500 million in downtown real estate - knows a little something about turning a profit. He sees a new sports arena and a National Hockey League team bringing vibrancy to a downtown that already has added a convention center, hotel, an under-construction science center, among other assets. If downtown starts booming, so too does the value of Larry G.'s investments.

You've heard about motivated sellers, looking for a reasonable price to get out from under their houses? Larry G. is a motivated investor, looking for a reasonable return. He is even willing to put up $25 million of his own money toward construction of an arena.

The partnership of Gottesdiener and AEG Worldwide of Los Angeles was selected as new manager of the money pit known as the Hartford Civic Center. When the deal expires in 2013, Larry G. envisions the construction of a downtown sports arena, with a big league hockey tenant.

It's a whale of a dream, but Hartford doesn't have a snowball's chance of getting major league hockey to return anytime soon. Despite the region's appeal - a culturally rich city with a makeover in progress - it remains a small market sandwiched between Boston and New York. The psychological scar remains from the messy exit of the Hartford Whalers 10 years ago.

Anyone talking with Hartford about relocating an NHL franchise is looking for leverage with another city - not longevity here. Having said that, you'd have a puck for a brain to bet against a deep-pocketed, naysayer-knocking think-big guy like Gottesdiener. He's got moxie, persistence, resources and was investing in Hartford when others were backing off.

I'd like to see the poor guy make it. Here are some thoughts. Call it the "You Can't" List. You can't start talking about building a new sports arena and luring major league hockey to Hartford as long as:

Development of the long-awaited Front Street retail anchor for the Connecticut Convention Center crawls along.

Construction on the long-delayed Hartford Public High School expansion is incomplete and locations for new magnet schools are unresolved.

Only 15 percent of the city's third-graders read at grade level, and the high school graduation rate is 29 percent.

Shootings in the city are on the rise.

More big business such as ING, MassMutual, WFSB-TV and Met Life are leaving rather than entering the city.

Attendance remains tepid for the Hartford Wolf Pack, the quality minor league team playing now at the Civic Center. The team won its league championship in 2000 and regularly makes the playoffs. Yet, attendance this season averaged 4,496 - ranking 17th among 27 teams. If Hartford can't boast about filling seats for minor league hockey, how can it demand a big league club?

Sports and entertainment downtown are worthy attractions. But Hartford has to follow through on some existing problems before it takes on the Civic Center's ultimate demise. Yes, the building is antiquated, and serious talks about its long-term future can't be tabled forever. The city's leverage, however, in asking for more state dollars to build an arena and recruit a big league franchise is enhanced when more pressing items on its punch list are checked off.

If Hartford handles its business, then Larry G. can go handle his.

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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