Frank Russo Returns To Help Guide Hoped-For XL Center Renaissance
By KENNETH R. GOSSELIN
February 22, 2013
Global Spectrum doesn't manage a single venue in Connecticut, but as the Philadelphia firm takes over downtown Hartford's XL Center, one of its senior executives knows that arena far better than most.
Frank E. Russo Jr. managed the XL Center formerly the Hartford Civic Center through tough times: the 1978 roof collapse and two years of rebuilding. It's also thought of as before and after the collapse.
"B.C. and A.C., as we referred to it," said Russo, who is Global Spectrum's business development chief.
Russo, 66, will oversee how the new management's strategy unfolds at the XL Center as well as the Stadium at Rentschler Field, which Global will also begin managing later this year. And Russo, who has always maintained an office and home in the Hartford area, said his passion for the XL Center hasn't cooled in the past three decades.
"I have deep feelings about how we should run and how we should operate and what impact it should have and how the two buildings should work together," Russo said. "So I am glad I can help guide that now, that I actually have a role, rather than sitting back and being a bystander and criticizing things. It's put your money where your mouth is, and that's what we did."
The Civic Center that Russo headed between 1977 and 1983 is much changed: a massive redevelopment by Northland Investment Corp. was added in the past decade, opening up the "bunker" design, again returning street-level retail to Trumbull and Asylum streets. It also gave control of many formerly public spaces to Northland.
Despite the more modern exterior, the arena itself is still largely a throwback to the 1970s.
Russo said Global is up to the task at the XL Center: Keeping AHL hockey and UConn basketball; boosting attendance and events; mapping out much-needed capital improvements and injecting more life into the space before and after events.
"We make a living out of taking over buildings that are very much like the Hartford Civic Center," Russo said. "They are older buildings, you could call them distressed, they are not currently modern. They are not an NBA or an NHL arena, but they still are very active and still vital to the communities that they serve."
Russo is facing one immediate deadline: Global must sign an AHL team by March 1. An announcement is expected any day.
Although upgrades to the arena were highlighted in Global Spectrum's bid for the XL contract, Russo said that priority also must be given to boosting attendance at sports and entertainment events.
"I'm a firm believer in before you start talking about raising the roof or multimillion dollars worth of investments, you book more events, get more people in there, get the revenue going, get the excitement going and get that building to be a more vital spin-off to downtown Hartford with pre- and post-event activity," Russo said.
'Bigger And Better'
Russo grew up in Hartford's South End and, as a youngster, took trumpet lessons in a building on Trumbull Street, just across from where the Hartford Civic Center would be built in the early 1970s. After he graduated from Bulkeley High School, his family moved to Wethersfield.
His first brush with the Civic Center came in 1972 after he landed a job with the city of Hartford. At 26, he joined the city manager's office as an assistant, with one of his responsibilities being to coordinate city departments involved in the January 1975 opening of the Civic Center.
Just four months before the opening, the first manager resigned, Russo said.
"So I was anointed as the acting administrator to go down there, and that was a temporary assignment that ultimately lasted nine years and changed my career," Russo said. "If I ever had to walk in the door with a résumé, I never would have been considered."
Russo's biggest challenge came in January 1978 when the Civic Center roof collapsed. He was at an industry meeting in Florida and had to race back to Hartford.
What Russo remembers most about the collapse besides the 15-foot pile of debris was the initial reaction that the coliseum shouldn't be rebuilt.
"It took a lot of courage by the state and city, city council and Gov. [Ella] Grasso at the time and everybody involved to come up with a plan that we can overcome this," Russo said. "Let's build a bigger and better Civic Center, and that quickly became the theme."
It took two years to reopen. The number of arena seats increased from 12,000 to 17,000; hand rails were added and wider seats were used; the number of concession areas rose from four to a dozen; and scoreboards were hung in each of the four corners of the arena.
Russo's tenure at the Civic Center had its share of bumps. He was caught in the middle of a political debate over whether the city or a semi-autonomous authority should run the building. Russo's salary, which rose to $50,000 before he resigned, came under fire. And a part-time consulting contract with Worcester, which was building its own Civic Center, was criticized by city politicians as a potential conflict of interest.
Russo said the Civic Center wasn't originally intended to make money, but to promote downtown economic development. But by the time Russo left, the venue ended the 1982 fiscal year with a $1.2 million surplus.
As the Civic Center's manager, Russo pushed to expand the venue's concert and special event business.
He acknowleges that the booking atmosphere is far tougher today. There is stiff competition from the casinos in southeastern Connecticut and the prospect for more if new gambling and entertainment venues are built in Springfield or outside Boston.
But Global, Russo said, is well-equipped to jump into the fray, as manager of 115 arenas, convention centers and other entertainment venues.
Attendance at AHL games needs to be higher, closer to 7,000 more than double the current average, Russo said. A restructured team contract could free up more money to market the team, he said. Russo said he would like to see the University of Connecticut men's and women's teams play more games in Hartford.
He also is open to different ideas, such as hosting an NHL exhibition game at the XL Center. One possible pairing could pit the Philadelphia Flyers owned by Global parent Comcast Spectacor against, say, the New York Rangers or the Boston Bruins.
Although the XL Center building won't rival a new venue in a larger city, upgrades can make significant improvements. Those could include premium suites lower in the arena, an increasingly popular choice in sports venues bringing spectators closer the action. "Loge" seating not as expansive as the suites also is possible. This type of seating typically includes four or six seats with partitions in between for privacy, also lower in the arena.
Other improvements could include upgraded concessions and menu offerings; a signature bar area; and more digital screens in the arena bowl.
Russo said he feels strongly that something must be done with the idle retail space along Trumbull Street for activities before and after events, even on a temporary basis. Any such deal would have to be negotiated with Northland Investment Corp., which redeveloped the old Civic Center in the past decade, all except the arena.
"It's like a ghost town," Russo said. "It is. I get frustrated when I go there and see all that space empty. It's not what anybody had envisioned for that building."
All Roads Lead To Hartford
After leaving his post at the Civic Center, Russo was a partner in a production company with downtown developers Richard D. Bronson and Allan Hutensky. The company booked sports and entertainment events, some of them at the Civic Center.
In 1988, he took a job as vice president of sales with Ogden Entertainment and oversaw international operations of arenas and stadiums in the United Kingdom, Germany and Australia.
Russo always kept an office in Glastonbury, where he lived with his wife, Andrea, and two daughters, Kara and Gina. He did spend yearlong stints in the early 1990s, managing the then-new Target Center in Minneapolis and later, the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York. He commuted home on the weekends.
Ogden sold off its management business, and Russo took a job with Global Spectrum in 2000.
Russo said that managing the Civic Center was a highlight of his career and he has long wondered what impact Global could have on the venue's revival. Now, Russo has the chance.
"It's a unique opportunity that most people don't get," Russo said. "So, I want to take advantage of it."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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