On the windy night of Jan. 9, 1975, I met Byron Trimble, who just had been named director of the Hartford Civic Center. He was very upbeat about the building's potential — consumer and trade shows in the lower level, hockey in the Veteran's Memorial Coliseum, shops and restaurants serving patrons.
But he had one excellent idea that never came to fruition in any meaningful way — public skating. Over the last 35 years we've heard one excuse after another that has prevented regular use by the taxpayers of the ice they paid for.
We watched the Civic Center roof collapse, the shops dry up, the Whalers come and go. Now we look at a lot of empty space and empty storefronts around what is now the XL Center, even with people living in Hartford 21 over the former civic center. Oh, for the days of Lucy's Look, Gaetano's, Eastern Mountain Sports and Arthur's Drug Store.
The newly formed Capital Region Development Authority put out a request for proposals this fall for new management of the XL Center and Rentschler Field. Responses are due on Monday. Let's hope the one that is chosen has the imagination and commitment to (finally) provide activities and economic benefit to the taxpayers and citizens of Hartford.
It's only fair. The city commits valuable real estate to this public facility and endures traffic inconvenience when there is a big event. It's time for the development agency and the new manager to open the facility and increase opportunities for Hartford citizens, downtown workers and regular patrons.
First, figure out how to bring action to the XL Center on a daily basis. Ideas! In the vast area in front of the main entrance, set up umbrellas and tables as an outdoor cafe in good weather. As for the seldom used ice, Winterfest proves that skating can be a very popular downtown event, given the right promotion and investment. Open up the ice! Lunchtime skating? How about, as former city councilman, Bob Painter has suggested, open skating before or after the Whale and upcoming UConn hockey games? All the help is there already.
As for promotion, it seems to many in the city that residents are ignored. The current management hardly ever uses city media and doesn't steer facility renters to city markets. There are 125,000 people here, many of whom are more likely to attend events than those who live over Avon Mountain.
Once upon a time, the former Civic Center went out of its way to hire Hartford residents. Byron Trimble and his successors advertised in ethnic and local papers, alerted the city council to job opportunities, and generally acted as a partner with the city. The new management needs to revive that approach.
Also, If increased business is the goal of large taxpayer investments in facilities such as the XL Center, than why aren't Connecticut products featured? John Gale, a local lawyer and activist, said: "Local products: Jamaican meat pies, South End grinders, Connecticut beers, wines and soft drinks all bring a Connecticut sense of place, missing in our hotels and big facilities. Plus, the money turns over and over spent locally. Just think of the impact over the years of local purchases."
Finally, since the new manager will have charge of both the XL Center and Rentschler Field, let's find some synergy. There is no easy public transportation to the field from downtown Hartford. Why not shuttles from downtown to the Rent on game days and nights? Not everyone drives and parking is expensive at the field. Downtown restaurants and shops could work together to promote dining and shopping downtown before or after games or shows at the field.
The current management of the XL Center has announced it will open the ice on Dec. 23 for a free skate, and determine whether to continue such a strategy based on the day's turnout. That's hardly long-range planning, and such programs need a build-up, as a rule, but it's a start.
CRDA needs to consider all the economic and social effects of our tax-supported or nonprofit facilities, and see that they are managed accordingly.
Mike McGarry is a former Hartford city councilman.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at