HARTFORD -- The agency in charge of the XL Center is recommending that $35 million in state funding be spent on nearly three dozen improvements for the aging arena, ranging from cup holders to new premium seating.
But tucked into the recommendations from the Capital Region Development Authority is one that is sure to ignite debate: a study to determine if the 38-year-old venue has a future beyond the new, 10-year management contract with Global Spectrum or whether the 16,000-seat arena and exhibition hall should be replaced.
A CRDA report to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy containing the recommendations says the improvements are needed to keep the XL Center competitive with newer, larger arenas.
"Regardless, a longer term vista is also necessary to avoid the proverbial 'bad money after good' danger and to align the budgetary, political and practical ingredients to sustain any civic center long term," the report said. A study assessing the venue's future "is also recommended in order to update the existing studies and advance a replacement strategy for the XL Center."
The quasi-public CRDA's dilemma is one often faced by operators of aging entertainment venues: It's essential to know the long-term prospects to determine how much to invest now to keep the existing venue profitable without overspending.
The renovations now contemplated for the XL Center would be completed in two phases stretching over at least two years.
The first, already underway, calls for $2.5 million in improvements financed by Global Spectrum as part of its contract agreement. Workers will install about 150 flat-screen TVs, create more space for the sale of merchandise, renovate concession areas and replace a curtain used to reduce the size of the arena for smaller events. Global Spectrum, which took over July 1, also is funding research of the building and its mechanical systems.
The second phase, which could start in the spring, would cost $35 million and be financed by the state. The legislature and Malloy backed the expenditure, but State Bond Commission approval is still needed.
CRDA has recommended that the money be spent on new loge seating, refurbished locker rooms, a modern "green room" for performers, improved lighting, the possible addition of more restrooms, overhaul of existing restrooms, more powerful Wi-Fi service, marquees facing either Church or Ann streets, and new scoreboards at opposite ends of the arena.
Another recommendation would remove the doors between the concourse and the arena to make it easier for ticket holders to buy food and drinks without feeling they are missing part of the event. Newer arenas have concession areas inside the arena.
Michael W. Freimuth, the CRDA's executive director, said the improvements outlined in the report are intended to boost revenues and cut back on expenses -- and are roughly equivalent to the state's investment of $38 million -- about $2.7 million a year between 1993 and 2007.
"The thought here is this is what we have to do to make sure the building has 10 years of productivity left," Freimuth said.
NEW ARENA? NEW SITE?
The state-funded study assessing the XL Center's long-term viability could conclude that the existing arena, built in 1975 and expanded after a roof collapse three years later, could be made over into a state-of-the-art venue, or rebuilt elsewhere, as some have suggested in the past.
CRDA's report ticks off obstacles facing the XL Center in a decade. The building has one-third the land needed for a modern facility and is 185,000 square feet smaller than the average AHL arena, and expansion options are limited. No matter how much money is spent, only so much can be done with the layout, such as the narrow concourse. And it will not "achieve major league (NHL) acceptance," the report says.
"Such an exercise, however, is beyond the immediate and will require a more thorough understanding," the report says.
The future of the XL Center -- formerly the Hartford Civic Center -- has been tossed around for years, often in connection with major league hockey.
In the past decade, efforts to return the NHL to Hartford have ended in failure, most recently with Howard Baldwin's vision for a $105 million XL Center redevelopment, more than a decade after the NHL's Hartford Whalers left. Before that, Northland Investment Corp.'s plan for a new arena went nowhere.
The stakes are high for Hartford. Competition for concerts has intensified, with the rise of entertainment venues at Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods and now the prospect of a casino and entertainment venues in western Massachusetts.
But a new arena also could cost at least $400 million, Freimuth said.
This summer's Justin Bieber concert came during a punishing heat wave that tested the XL Center's air conditioning system. One of the six air handlers that blows cooled air into the arena failed part way through the concert.
"The teenie-boppers didn't seem to mind that it got a little hot down in the bowl," Robert Saint, director of construction services for CRDA, said during a tour of the XL Center for The Courant on Wednesday morning.
Joking aside, Saint said the aging systems are a real concern. The air handlers are 35 years old, well past the 20 to 25 years they are expected to last.
Updating the building's systems could eat up as much as $10 million, or a third of the funding request going to the bond commission.
Freimuth, also on the tour, said the updates would make the building more energy-efficient and cut expenses. The XL Center's electric bill runs about $65,000 a month.
"That's a body blow," Freimuth said.
Some of the recommendations are aimed at boosting revenues, such as improving Wi-Fi access in the building. That allows patrons to more easily text, tweet and post to the Internet.
But it also has benefits for the venue: Direct marketing to patrons via their mobile devices translates into advertising dollars for the XL Center, Freimuth said.
"Right now, you can't even get a signal," Freimuth said.
Premium loge seating lower in the arena also would boost ticket revenues. Not as private as sky boxes, loge boxes provide chairs and tables, closer to the action, an increasingly popular option at newer arenas.
Building that seating would require renovating parts of two existing sections.
Among the recommendations are upgrades to spaces that ticket holders never see but are key to attracting new business. For instance, the existing "green room" for headlining concert performers screams 1980s, with bulbs surrounding a mirror and not much else to recommend it. Certainly, it can be dressed up. When Katy Perry stopped in Hartford, the room was cloaked in pink.
But it lacks the granite counters and woodwork of other, newer venues, Saint said.
"When Mohegan peels strawberries for them, it's hard for the XL to stand up," Freimuth said.
LEARNING WHAT WORKS
Chris Lawrence, XL's general manager, cautioned that Global's research might find some of the CRDA's recommendations unworkable.
Already, there could be a snag with the cup holders. There might not be enough room to add them so ticket holders can comfortably exit a row of seats, Lawrence said.
And there are other constraints. One recommendation calls for adding much-needed restrooms by breaking through a wall into surrounding space owned by Northland. But that would require negotiating a lease. So far, talks with Northland haven't gone far, Freimuth said.
"We first have to learn in phase one what we can do in phase two," Lawrence said.
Kenneth R. Gosselin covers real estate for The Courant. Visit his blog at www.courant.com/propertyline .
SHOWING ITS AGE
Recommended improvements to the XL Center.
$2.5 million: Paid for by Global Spectrum. New flat-screen TVs, more space to sell merchandise, renovate concession areas.
$35 million: In state funding. Improvements ranging from cup holders to premium seating.
Looking ahead: Study to determine if the arena should be replaced.
Online: Courant.com/ xlrenovations for photos.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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