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New Arena For City?

Would Replace Old Civic Center

By JEFFREY B. COHEN, Courant Staff Writer

January 22, 2008

The right conditions are within reach for a new sports and entertainment arena to replace the aging Civic Center, recently renamed the XL Center, and the best place to put that arena would be on the center's current site, an arena consultant has told the city.

In a report Mayor Eddie A. Perez presented to corporate leaders last week, the arena consultants told the city that a new $300 million to $400 million, largely state-funded arena is worth talking about. Next up is a task force to gauge corporate financial support.

"It's the first step in a long process," said Mark McGovern, the city's acting director of development services. "In making that first step, we've had experts tell us that it's not out of the question that we would be able to site, fund and operate an arena."

The report from consultant HOK Sport comes four months after a panel of experts from the Urban Land Institute told the city that a new arena would not be in its best interest. Instead, reinventing the current facility makes the most sense, the panel said.

Perez takes a slightly different approach. True, his staff says, a lot would have to come together to make a new arena feasible state support, corporate support, tenant support. But there is an inevitability aspect, too. The state's lease on the city-owned center ends in 2013, and although the state could extend that lease, the city needs to have a plan for the future.

"What we learned is that it's worth pursuing," McGovern said. "Because we know in 2013 we're going to have to grapple with the decision."

It's been 30 years since the roof of the then-3-year-old Hartford Civic Center collapsed under the weight of snow, and the place is only getting older.

The future of the center has been a hot-button issue since 2005, when the arena's steward, the Connecticut Development Authority, decided to study its options. In the process, the authority's consultants which included the consultants hired by the city told it that the center was outdated, too small and not right for major league professional sports.

In contrast, Perez's study wasn't as much focused on the health of the center as it was on the feasibility of building a new arena downtown. That study said that the Hartford area has the right demographic mix to support major league professional sports and a new arena.

But its corporate support is uncertain, and an "NHL franchise may struggle to generate sufficient revenues from the corporate sector."

So long before asking the legislature to fund a new arena, Perez is assembling a task force that will gauge whether there is enough corporate support to pay for suites, seats, and advertising to make such a venture worthwhile.

The study also said the best option for a new arena is the current site, and that building the arena there would call for the closing of Church Street between Ann and Trumbull Streets. Construction would cost between $285 million and $315 million in today's numbers; city officials recognize it could be as high as $400 million.

When it comes to paying the price, the study calls for a "creative public-private joint venture," and recognizes that "most facilities require significant public funding."

The state last year picked a partnership headed by Lawrence R. Gottesdiener, downtown's largest developer, to run the center. Gottesdiener is the owner of the Hartford 21 apartment tower that abuts the center, and has said he wants to knock down the arena, build a new one, and bring a major league professional sports franchise to the city.

"Eddie showed a lot of leadership in continuing to drive this forward when it's not easy," Gottesdiener said Friday. "It's definitely rolling the boulder up the hill."

But it has to be rolled, he said. The center as-is, while functional, brings the city down. "It's particularly important now, as that arena decays," he said. "We're totally behind it, and we think it's absolutely necessary."

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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