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What our Citizens Deserve From Their Investments

By Mike McGarry

January 17, 2013

The citizens of Hartford, East Hartford and all of Connecticut, those who live, work and play in Downtown Hartford and at Rentschler Field, deserve better. Better than they have gotten from the massive – taxpayer funded – investments in the Veterans’ Memorial Civic Center (now the XL Center), Rentschler Field and Adriaen’s Landing.

Will we continue to pay and probably see vast sums of taxpayer dollars used to improve these public facilities well into the future? Salaries for C.R.D.A, subsidies for Front Street attractions, upgrades of facilities (surely the XL Center) are continuing cost factors that may never end. And we can’t forget the valuable land, never to be taxed at full value, lost to Hartford and East Hartford. Roads, police, fire all cost money, who reimburses for these?

Many say, the main point is that over the years, the government units and the private firms in charge of these facilities have drifted away from sense of community. The bottom line seems to have evolved into dollars only, not citizen participation or sense of pride and place. The citizens own these facilities, not the state employees involved or the high salaried managers of private firms managing them.

Now, with contracts coming due at the Civic Center (XL Center), Rentschler Field, and with Adriaen’s Landing finally coming full circle, it is time for our leaders: the Governor, State Legislators, the Mayor and the City Council to demand that whatever deals are made have the interests of residents, downtown workers and regular patrons paramount in the thinking of C.R.D.A. and its vendors. Wine at $9:25 a glass, $11.00 beer, overpriced food and vast, unused timeframes and spaces are examples of what is wrong. The food vendor in the Civic Center (XL) is Delaware North… need we say more.

So, several observers with “time in grade” have gathered ideas to bring the Civic back to what was once the Civic Center and to suggest how the massive investments in Rentschler field and Adriaen’s Landing can reverse the fortress mentality that has developed.

Suggestions and Ideas

Hiring: At all levels, from managers to cleaners, efforts should be made to hire residents of Hartford, East Hartford and Greater Hartford. Jobs should have hiring fairs, be advertised in local papers (Northend Agent, Inquiring News, Hartford News, East Hartford Gazette, etc.) on local radio stations and on local cable stations. A knowledge of the area is a real bonus, new hires should get better training including local information.

Physical changes: Improvements to facilities should be bid to local firms. But, most important, the Civic Center (XL) improvements should be done without massive disruption. Citizens and commuters are now putting up with the MDC work, and soon will have inter-modal traffic changes. Enough already. Plus, the businesses that have hung in and invested all these years would be hard pressed to stay in business with any extended “black” period. Remember the roof collapse of the Civic Center.

Some of those vast empty spaces in all the facilities can be filled with items of local history or interest (like airports worldwide, or kiosks on the New York State thruway). For example, the University of Hartford has a world-class collection of political memorabilia that sits in a warehouse. And, we remember a “Connecticut Sports Museum and Hall of Fame” in the early 1990’s.

The ugly walls and cement barriers of all three are disgraceful. Just look at the North side of Arch Street. Flowers, trees, artwork, signage anything to break up the massive East German look.

Management: The idea of coordinating the Civic Center (XL) with Rentschler Field is good business. We would expect those entities to co-operate with the Convention Center. An expanded “Hospitality Committee” with managers (not just public relations representa­tives) is overdue, once, everyone participated. Now, often, the XL Center is not even represented and new hires are sent by most facilities to this important meeting. Remember the NCAA debacle.

The idea that UCONN could be such a partner is counter-intuitive. Government agencies are not, and should not, be businesses. They invest with our dollars and have no real bottom-line, compared to tax paying entities. Could anyone imagine UCONN putting together shuttles between downtown and the field? Hardly.

Promotion: The current managers, and the C.R.D.A., do little to encourage local participation with the Center, the Landing, or the Field. Are the managers of all the above active in the Chambers of Commerce? The Business Districts? Do they go out to Rotary, Lions Clubs, the Senior Centers? Do they use local papers? City-oriented radio? Why not co-operate with organizations like the Artists Collective and/or CPTV to promote local talent that has gained national reputations – Jimmy Green or Nat Reeves for example – to showcase Hartford? Create local events.

As for bringing in visitors, why isn’t Connecticut (or Hartford) at the N.Y. Times travel show? Massa­chusetts is there, Lake George is there, Canal New York is there – No Hartford. We should have a consortium of hotels (Waterford Group) attractions (CT Science Center and the Wadsworth…) and facilities (XL, Rentschler and the Landing) to finance and show our wares. A public relations team of all three facilities is needed – for cross promotions. Each one promoting the other.

Tours should be organized: Senior groups, out of state tour companies using the Mark Twain House, Service clubs, school groups, Conventioneers all should be offered “back room” tours of the facilities. Certainly, shuttles between downtown and Rentschler Field on major event days are feasible. This only needs access points after the games or shows to facilitate return trips to downtown. Many people cannot drive, there is no easy public transportation (although it was originally promised) and the $15.00 parking charge is offensive to many.

Cross promotions with entities like the parking authority should not only be encouraged but demanded as a way of doing business. Jay Sloves “Park your tail here” promotion was a big success – 25% increase in Friday Night parking at the Morgan street garage.

Why did AEG stop that?

When the Wadsworth, the CT Science Center, the Old State House or the Mark Twain House do major events, they should get “air time” on scoreboards and running signs. The info booth at the Convention Center is fine, but needs more attention and why not have a similar booth at the XL or the field?

Local products: Locally made Portuguese sausage and Jamaican meat pies, Italian grinders and local pasta and desserts, CT beer and wine should be at these facilities. Monies spent at our facilities should circulate in the region.

Other activities: The ice. Why isn’t it used on a regular basis? High school hockey, ice hockey tournaments, open skating, figure skating practice and local shows. If state regulations, city ordinances, or employee contracts interfere, change them, they are only paper. We have a world class facility that is seldom used. Remember this facility was approved by a referendum as a Civic Center and originally, the ice was to be used for open skating.

The empty square footage in front and in the Civic Center (XL Center) is now wasted. Put a dozen umbrella tables outside on Trumbull with daily entertainment (buskers, one man performance, small groups) for the cost of one management employee, downtown could be alive every day. Find sponsors, tie in benefiting local food establishments (Max Bibo’s for example), and, for God sake’s, think of how it could be done rather than any minor difficulties. If it rains or is too hot, move everything into the empty space inside.

First Night Fireworks should be moved to the riverfront. This would free up Bushnell Park (west) for a big “Rock and Roll in your boots” show using the pavilion and tubing down the Capital hill… that would be as popular as ice skating near the Pump House.

Graduations: The Civic Center (XL) and the Rentschler Field both should go out of their way to welcome large local events like graduations. Again, if staffing levels make these too expensive – change them to sensible numbers. Again, these are the citizens’ facilities and should be used as such. Tulane University uses the Super Bowl for its graduation.

Conclusion: A complete reversal of thinking and acting by all three facilities is needed, and its up to our leaders and the CRDA board to be the engine for this change. The public should be able to comment on the new contracts before final action is taken. Many other ideas may surface if the debate becomes public, as it should. The Courant editorial board, the Hartford Business Journal, local papers, “Face the State” on TV, radio interviews all need to be in the mix. Remember we paid for these investments and should have a role.

Reprinted with permission of the The Hartford News.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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