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A New Arena In Hartford?

Replacing XL Center Worth A Look, But -

Tom Condon

August 17, 2008

Mayor Eddie Perez spoke to The Courant's editorial board a week or so ago about his major initiatives and how they were going. Third on his list, after education and health care, was an update on a downtown arena.

The city is trying to figure out what to do with the aging-but-functional XL Center. While renovating the former Civic Center is an option, my sense is that the mayor really wants to replace it with a brand new facility. He reasons, soundly, that downtown needs to be bigger, that it needs to expand across I-84, and that it needs more attractions to entice more people to live, work and invest in the center of the city.

I agree on all points. The question is whether a new arena ought to be a top priority in achieving these goals. A task force, headed by civic-minded executive Andy Bessette of Travelers, is gauging corporate support for the idea.

Let's start with what arenas are not. Sports stadiums and arenas have been sold to taxpayers for years as great generators of jobs and economic activity. The cat is out of the bag on that argument; economists such as Andrew Zimbalist of Smith College say they are nothing of the kind. "All independent economic studies since the 1950s show no statistically significant positive economic impact" from sports stadiums, Zimbalist told a gathering at Trinity College several years ago.

That said, a new arena would be nice to have. Downtown Hartford would be very quiet without UConn basketball, minor league hockey and other events. Nationally televised games from Hartford are very good for the city's image. I'm told the bar areas at Max's and Mayor Mike's are quite crowded on game nights.

So where does that get us?

The XL Center reopened in 1980, following reconstruction from the 1978 roof collapse. The Connecticut Development Authority, which leases it from the city (under a 20-year deal set up in 1993 by Gov. Lowell Weicker Jr. to try to keep the Whalers viable), has put nearly $70 million into the building.

Nonetheless, it's not up to modern standards in several respects and major systems are nearing the end of their useful lives, according to a 2006 study. It still works but is not getting any younger.

The options would seem to include: doing nothing; renovating the existing building; building a new-but-small arena big enough for existing tenants; or building a somewhat larger arena in the hope of luring a major league hockey or basketball team to town.

There are no hard and fast rules. The Hartford Business Journal just studied arena projects and found that Kansas City and Omaha successfully built new arenas (with little chance of nabbing a big league basketball or hockey team), while Providence and Springfield did well by renovating their existing facilities. New Haven just demolished an arena, and its downtown is as vibrant as it has been in 50 years.

So what would work for Hartford? Larry Gottesdeiner of Northland, downtown's biggest landlord, has offered to put $25 million toward a new arena. If a few other well-heeled worthies want to match the pot, perhaps that gets the project moving.

But if nearly all of the $300 million to $400 million is to come from the state, then I think things get dicier. The state just made a huge investment in Hartford, paying for about everything but a new indoor arena. The relationship between Perez and state leaders has not been consistently harmonious. The casinos are daunting competitors for concerts.

Downtown Hartford has other needs. There is too much blank space land being wasted for surface parking. Downtown needs to push across the highway. There should be more mixed-use structures in the Union Place area. Capitol Avenue near the Bushnell should be developed.

My inclination would be to get some of this other stuff under way first, while beginning a long-term planning effort with the state and the corporate community for a new arena. We will need one at some point in the not-too-distant future, but all things considered, it might be the time for Hartford to think small.

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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