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Rejuvenating XL Center An Excellent Vision

Renovated arena could jump-start downtown Hartford

The Hartford Courant

November 20, 2011

Bless Howard Baldwin. He's a dreamer with his feet on the ground. He wants to do something good for Hartford. And by putting a plan on the table, he's forcing us to face this question: Do we want to cement Hartford's position as the entertainment center of central Connecticut, or not?

For many good reasons, the answer should be a resounding yes.

Mr. Baldwin, the revenant hockey impresario who brought the National Hockey League's Whalers to Connecticut in the 1970s and then returned to own the AHL Connecticut Whale, unveiled a proposal last week for a $105 million renovation of Hartford's XL Center. The plan wisely imagines the center as part of an entertainment district on Trumbull Street that would include an IMAX theater, a couple of new and hip restaurants and bars, a broadcast studio at street level and other amenities.

By creating this venue, Mr. Baldwin hopes to lure the NHL back to Hartford by 2017. Whether that is realistic or not, the proposal should still move forward. Here's why:

The 1970s-era XL Center is in dire need of modernization. Everything from the mechanical systems to the restrooms must be updated. The building has done yeoman service, but it's wearing out. Fortunately the structural framework is sound, so it can be renovated instead of replaced. Conversely, not to redevelop the property risks leaving the city with an empty concrete hulk in not too many years.

Hartford is the center of the region's transportation network, a network soon to be strengthened by the busway and commuter rail projects. Economy of scale says it's impractical to put a major arena in every town. It makes sense to put it where people can get to it.

It's an economic winner. A study by the University of Connecticut Center for Economic Analysis found that the remake would generate 1,202 to1,449 jobs and $45.3 to $58.4 million in total economic activity over 10 years. UConn economist Fred Carstensen, who heads the center, said the numbers are conservative and that the project will work whether or not the city is able to attract an NHL team.

A new venue with more sports and concerts will help attract and retain younger workers, a constant concern of the city's major corporations, and new companies. Such an attraction also will help the city's efforts to turn a half-dozen empty buildings into, mostly, housing. The housing built in the past decade is full, and there are now people on the street in downtown Hartford. The next wave could turn Hartford into a 24-hour city once again. A residential base helps make Mr. Baldwin's proposal work.

The project would be a focal point of the city's iQuilt plan, of tying together arts and cultural venues in the area of Bushnell Park. Arts and entertainment, along with educational institutions and medical facilities, will be at the core of successful cities in the 21st century.

If the project is to move forward, the state should be involved. The state has invested well over $1 billion in Hartford in the past 15 years. This is a way to strengthen and take advantage of that investment. For example, the state is building the New Britain to Hartford busway. More events at the XL Center would be more reasons to take the bus.

The private sector must step up, as it did when the coliseum was constructed. The civic-minded "bishops" from that era, the John Filers, Don Conrads, Harry Grays, et.al, would do so. The city owns the building and must be a full partner as well. It should not be looked to as a major source of funding, but of planning, regulatory and other assistance.

It is Greater Hartford's time-honored custom to greet any new idea with nitpicking and negativity. But this once, let's just do it.

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.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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