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Guests Glimpse Civic Center

November 10, 2006
By JEFFREY B. COHEN, Courant Staff Writer

Four firms potentially interested in being a part of the Hartford Civic Center's future took a spin of the place Thursday, walking the decades-old arena from its mechanical rooms to its high-end suites.

Their tour was part of the state's process to answer a simple question: If you had the keys to the center, what would you do with it?

The questions about the Civic Center and the prospect of returning major league hockey to Hartford resurfaced in late 2005, when developer Lawrence R. Gottesdiener announced he wanted to build a new arena and bring an NHL franchise to the city.

He recently lost a bid to buy the Pittsburgh Penguins, but his interest - combined with the state's losing investment at the center - has fueled a debate over the facility's future.

The four groups that toured the facility Thursday included some familiar names. They include Madison Square Garden, which operates the facility; and Gottesdiener's Northland Investment Corp. There were also two big arena names in the mix - Global Spectrum and SMG, both of Philadelphia.

A Global Spectrum official said he is working in partnership with former Whalers owner Howard Baldwin.

The tour took place a few weeks before a Dec. 1 deadline for proposals to be submitted to the Connecticut Development Authority, which is leasing the facility from the city until 2013. The authority says it will likely lose $4 million a year on its operation of the facility and wants to find a better way.

A consultant paid for by the authority told it this summer that the center is a well-operated but aging facility that could never handle a major league sports franchise. A new arena could cost between $300 million and $400 million. The agency is now asking private firms both what to do with the Civic Center and whether it thinks a new arena is possible.

At the same time the state is considering its options for the Civic Center, the city is pursuing an angle of its own - it wants a major league arena in the city somewhere, and it wants consultants to help it along. That process is ongoing.

As the pack of 12 walked the arena's back halls, past its boilers and ice chillers, its freezers and dry storage, the interested parties spoke of their interest.

Martin Brooks, whose company MSG runs the facility now, said "we look forward to submitting a response to the RFP [request for proposal] based on our nine years of history operating the building and our firsthand knowledge of the marketplace."

Frank E. Russo Jr., of Global Spectrum, once ran the building years ago and now is interested in running it again, he said. He said he is working in partnership with Howard Baldwin, the former Whalers owner who has said he wants to build up the city's Wolf Pack franchise before pursuing a national hockey team.

"While you can talk about bringing in a lot of new events, the first thing you need to focus on, I think, is this - you have 40 nights of hockey guaranteed. Get a plan that goes from 3,800 [people a game] to 10,000," he said.

Brian Kabatznick of SMG said it's up to the city, state and corporate communities to figure out whether they want to invest in a large-scale renovation or in a complete demolition and rebuild.

And Peter Standish, of Northland, said his company - which owns the neighboring Hartford 21 apartment tower - wants a part of the building's future.

"What happens here, we've got a vested interest in," Standish said. "We're intertwined with this facility."

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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