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The Arena Decision

Hartford Business Journal Editorial

August 11, 2008

City leaders are contemplating the future of the XL Center, formerly the Hartford Civic Center. More than $274,000 has been spent on two separate studies by independent consultants to examine the economic feasibility of demolishing the center and constructing a new arena on the downtown site.

A new facility would likely cost between $300 million and $400 million. Renovating the XL Center would cost less than a third of that, approximately $80 million.

Several like-sized cities have rebuilt, while others have renovated. Officials from Omaha and Kansas City say they are thrilled with their new 18,000-seat arenas, saying revenues and attendance rates are higher than anticipated. Officials from Providence, R.I., and Springfield, Mass., gutted, modernized and expanded their old areas, and they are both pleased with the results.

The choice for Hartford is not an easy one. The XL Center was once the home of the National Hockey League’s Whalers (until 1997), and it once hosted more than 40 concerts a year. Choosing to renovate rather than rebuild would all but kill the city’s chances of luring another NHL team or a National Basketball Association team, the consultants’ reports say.

At this point, Mayor Eddie Perez’s task force of city leaders appears to favor building a new arena, and they’re sounding out local corporations to gauge their level of commitment to what would be a highly ambitious enterprise. That vision of success appears to hinge on the city’s ability to land an NHL or NBA team. But the consultants’ reports caution that even with a new arena, Hartford would face aggressive competition from other cities with broader population bases or facilities that are grander still.

In contrast, a decision to renovate the existing arena would be a concession that the NHL and NBA are out of reach. Some will surely see such a decision as the more prudent approach, given that major league sports will always be a very tough sell for Hartford.

In addition, it will be hard to draw even half as many concerts as the civic center once hosted, given that there are fewer touring performers today and that many who do tour prefer to perform at the more intimate casinos, which also offer free parking for fans. Promoters say it is easier to sell tickets at the casinos than it is at the XL Center.

And unlike other cities, Hartford can’t boast great synergy between its civic center and its new state-of-the-art convention center — which are half a mile away from each other — so generating traffic from convention goers won’t be easy.

Those considerations suggest that Hartford’s planners need to move very cautiously before committing to a new arena. They don’t want to be like the old general who was so fixated on the last war that he didn’t notice that the nature of warfare had changed and that his old tactics were useless.

The final decision must be based on sound, rational thinking about present conditions — not on a vain hope to bring back a fondly remembered heyday.

Essential to the dilemma of building or not building, city officials need to figure out a realistic return on the public’s investment in a new facility. Will a new arena truly thrust Hartford’s revitalization into high gear and help accomplish what the Six Pillars of Progress had promised? Is there a way for a new arena to succeed without a major league team, a thriving concert business and strong support from the trade show industry?

These are tough questions. Our leaders owe us a decision that is both farsighted and fiscally responsible.

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