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Authority Not Betting On Baldwin's Dream Of NHL In Hartford

December 19, 2005
By JEFFREY B. COHEN, Courant Staff Writer

Howard Baldwin may be at the door with a dream of returning major league hockey to Hartford, but the state agency that runs the Hartford Civic Center is in no hurry to answer the knock.

Facing a Jan. 21 deadline to terminate the current management contract at the civic center, which is now costing the state almost $4 million a year, the Connecticut Development Authority instead is leaning toward a long-term analysis of the facility, its strengths, and its future opportunities.

"What we feel is an appropriate and prudent course of action is to first understand the market and understand how the civic center fits into the almost $1 billion of investment that the state has made in Hartford," said authority President Marie O'Brien. "Frankly, [we want to] understand what the financial impact will be for all stakeholders long term."

But Baldwin, a movie producer and former Whalers general managing partner, has some heavyweight backing, including Speaker of the House James Amann, D-Milford, a hockey fan.

"We have a person that is a businessman that wants to invest in our state, and what we're saying is, `we're losing $4 million a year, we've got this contract, so we'll bring in a consultant to see if your idea is a good one or not,'" Amann said. "I just don't understand it."

The issue is two-fold. First, attendance at Wolf Pack games has fallen just below the minimum required by contract. As a result, the state could exercise an option to get out of the roughly eight years remaining on its contract with Madison Square Garden, but it has to do so by mid-January.

But authority officials stick by MSG. "They do a great job marketing, and if anybody knows sports management, it's them," said L. Scott Frantz, chairman of the authority's board. As for the attendance, Frantz said "it's not up to contract standards, but it's not far off."

Second, the state has been losing, and will continue to lose, between $3.5 million and $4 million a year on the Civic Center - a venue Frantz calls a "drag" on state funds that the authority is in the unenviable position of managing.

"There's no question that, going back a year and a half or so, we probably should have initiated some kind of longer-term study," Frantz said.

But that's what they're doing now. And although Baldwin could have a good offer, he might not have the best one, Frantz said.

"It's not something we can jump into," he said. "If we did, [would we have] shot ourselves, as well as the citizens, in the foot?"

Neither Baldwin nor state officials would speak to the specifics of Baldwin's most recent proposal. But in a document prepared by Baldwin and obtained by The Courant, the man who says he would bring the NHL back to Hartford proposes acquiring the authority's lease for the city-owned building and assuming responsibility for future capital improvements to the civic center. Among other things, Baldwin's company also would get the rights to the Whalers name, logo and other trademarks.

In return, the authority would no longer have to pay an annual management fee as it now does to Madison Square Garden, and it would be out from under the burden of its lease payments to the city.

Once he has the civic center, Baldwin says, he would bring in a new AHL Whalers team to replace MSG's Wolf Pack. And while attendance at Wolf Pack games has been just shy of the contract-minimum 5,200, Baldwin says he can draw enough of a crowd to impress the NHL.

But authority officials aren't convinced, saying that Baldwin's offer - AHL now, maybe NHL later - does not merit hasty action.

"If somebody had a guarantee for an NHL team, the proposal would be entirely different," board Vice Chairman Richard T. Mulready said at a recent legislative hearing. "That's a lot of maybes to go through the process of canceling what we have with, by the way, an operator we think is pretty good."

What's more, the civic center's financial losses have nothing to do with the under-performing Madison Square Garden, Mulready said. Instead, the arena is a "drag" on the authority because of its roughly $1.7 million in annual rent payments to the city, it's roughly $2.5 million in payments for capital improvements and the roughly $750,000 it has to pay to finance the sky boxes it bought years ago, he said.

Amann isn't convinced.

"I'm no brain surgeon, but it doesn't make any sense to me - to sit there and be proud of a $4 million loss is beyond me," said Amann, who said he was on the verge of donning a jersey, grabbing a stick, and blacking out a few teeth to show his support. "The bottom line is, can we do better?"

Baldwin said he can. He has offered to make the lease payments to the city and to pay for future capital improvements on the arena. He said he'll agree to contractual attendance requirements, too.

"We will be in the top third of the AHL in attendance, or I'll give the franchise away for a dollar," he said.

As proof of his ability to draw larger crowds, Baldwin points to AHL teams in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., and Manchester, N.H. - teams in which he recently had an ownership interest.

"They're the two best teams in the American League, about 8,000 to 9,000 [in paid attendance each game]," he said. "And you're going to tell me that Hartford is not as good a [market] as Wilkes-Barre or Manchester?"

"People have to look at my track record in the marketplace and they have to decide," he said. "It's a market I care about, I believe I know how to make that market work and would love to try to make it work again."

As for the suggestion that the state would need a guaranteed NHL team to dump Madison Square Garden, Baldwin says no one can offer that."I think putting a team in Hartford is probably not even on the radar of the NHL right now," he said.

As for the civic center itself, Baldwin says it needs no short-term improvements. "I don't know that I'd do a thing to it," he said. Long-term is a different story, he said.

"You have to do an evaluation: Can you get [an NHL quality arena] with the existing building and for how much? Or, are you better [off] building a new building? I don't have the answer."

Amann insists that to ignore Baldwin's offer is to turn a back to the state's investment in downtown Hartford.

"The whole premise of why we wanted the Patriots was they were supposed to be the spark plug that would make the public investment work," Amann said. "When you took the sparkplug out of there ... it made that project one that was destined to failure.

"It's the missing tooth in the smile," he said of major league professional sports downtown.

For now, though, it's all talk. At a meeting next week, the authority's board will discuss whether to fund a long-term study of the decades-old civic center and its role in Hartford's future.

"It's out of my control," Baldwin said. "I have made the CDA very aware of what I think I can do there and what I'd like to do there. I'm willing to work with people. I'm willing to do it alone. I'm willing to do it any number of ways. But again, I'm on the outside looking in on a market that I happen to have a great deal of affection for."

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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