Hartford arena operator proposes $250m renovation, because $250m is a nice round number

Connecticut’s Capital Region Development Authority is proposing $250 million in state-funded upgrades to the Building Formerly Known As The Hartford Civic Center, which would include redoing concourses, converting skyboxes to restaurants and clubs, and rebuilding the outer wall so that passersby can see in:

“The objective is to make this building a new building,” [authority executive director Michael] Freimuth said. “It has to look, feel and smell new.”

There’s no money-grubbing sports team owner behind this move — the Hartford Whalers moved out a while back, in case you didn’t notice — but rather just a public arena manager asking the state for a pile of cash to spruce up the building it runs. So is this a bad idea or not?

The question, as it should always be with stadium development deals (or development deals of any kind), is not “Is the public paying for it?” but “What is the public getting for it?” The arena authority claims that spending $250 million on renovations will help produce more revenues from the building, which currently runs about a $3 million a year loss for the state. Freimuth didn’t provide any details on how much more revenue, though, beyond saying that he hopes the arena “would be better than break-even” — and I’d hope even the most math-challenged readers (or legislators) can see that spending $250 million to bring in an extra $3 million a year would be a horrible, horrible investment. (Freimuth also hinted that the renovations could help land an NHL team, though 1) nobody thinks the NHL is ready to go back to Hartford, and 2) if any new revenues are set to pay off the renovation costs and not go into the team’s pocket, why would an NHL owner be attracted by them?)

So should Connecticut just sit and live with an oldish arena, if there’s no way to economically justify the improvements? Maybe. Or maybe somebody needs to look at that $250 million price tag and figure out which items on it are really likely to boost revenues, and which ones are just there because they look neat. Not that there isn’t some intangible benefit to having a nicer-looking arena in the middle of your downtown, but there’s benefit to most other things the state could be doing with $250 million too — just because somebody came up with a design that costs that much doesn’t mean state officials should fall victim to the edifice complex.

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7 comments on “Hartford arena operator proposes $250m renovation, because $250m is a nice round number

  1. Ethics of tax payer money going towards sporting venues aside would’t it be cheaper to just scrap the XL Center & make a Hartford version of the Webster Bank Arena? Or do they really think the NHL may return one day?

  2. Nobody thinks the NHL will return. The exciting news in Hartford, now that the soccer hucksters have left town, is getting a AA baseball team. Between that, UCONN basketball, and minor league hockey, that’s about right for Hartford.

    XL Center is basically a larger version of Webster Bank arena.

  3. I like minor league sports. Just wondering if it would be cheaper to build a smaller but newer venue instead of pumping 250 million into the XL Center.

  4. It would almost certainly be cheaper. Whether it could bring in as much revenue is another question, since it would end up competing with Bridgeport (and Mohegan Sun) for smaller arena acts.

    It’s a good question, though, and one that should certainly be asked before just declaring that a $250 million overhaul is needed because old.

  5. The problem is the arena does need to be fixed up. If they plan on having hockey in the place the ice-making machinery needs to be updated. To the best of my knowledge it is the original equipment from the 70’s and it is breaking down. There are other thing but something needs to be done if they plan on having anything in this place.

    As for the NHL there are some who really think that a team will come back. I was a season-ticket holder for the Whalers and I have not wasted one second thinking the team will return. Three L’s: Location (Near NY), Losing, and Location (Near Boston) doomed the team and there is not reason think it would be different with a second go-around.

    Of course it does not help that our Governor throws out statements saying there are (as of now unknown) groups looking to bring a team here. It has been nearly two years since he said that and nobody has found out who these “groups” are.

    At the risk of rambling I’ll end it here. There are other issues that CT is facing that would be exacerbated with spending (borrowing?) (bonding?) $250 mil to fix up an arena.

  6. VinceCT could speak to this better than I, but a friend who used to live in Hartford told me that quality of life is an issue there and that the depressing, old arena contributed to that. Plus it’s not that far-fetched that an NHL team would move there. I’m sure that CSN New England would love to have a product that competes with the Bruins on NESN and New England has a lot of hockey fans.

  7. Same problem–Hartford still has some good jobs in the insurance industry, and some of the surrounding towns are doing well, but most of the economic action in that part of CT (and in MA) is in the public sector. A lot of the smaller cities have really been hit hard by economic changes and the loss of key businesses. In the end, there’s probably not a huge market for spending $60-$75 (or more) 41+ times a year on NHL tickets, nor was there when times were better. The depressing QOL in Hartford has more to do with the loss of these businesses than what the arena looks like.

    Same other problem–everything in the article depends on assuming the arena is a “driver of economic growth.” I’m not sure how that assertion became fact. Might be nice to hear more from the State.

    That said, Hartford has done fine by the AHL (good hockey) and other minor league sports. I don’t think making the walls glass is really going to affect the development of downtown much. Having concrete walls on the TD Garden didn’t slow down Boston. So maybe there is another “driver” out there? the Whalers were fun but bad–a relic of attempts to start competing leagues. No one serious really believes the NHL will ever return to Hartford.

    I did find this tidbit in the article interesting. Given that there really is no arena in connecticut (at least without a casino attached) competing with Hartford to show UCONN hoops, I’m not sure why this “partnership” was really necessary.

    “The contract would make UConn more of a partner than a tenant. The deal calls for the university to play 30 games a year — men’s and women’s basketball and ice hockey — for 20 years. But instead of paying rent, as it does now, and keeping the majority of ticket revenue, UConn and the arena would share all revenue — tickets, concessions, sponsorships and premium seating — with UConn no longer paying rent.”

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