The state of Connecticut is considering spending $250 million to upgrade Hartford’s XL Center (formerly the Hartford Civic Center) and everybody likes it except for the part about coming up with $250 million:
Supporters of transforming downtown’s aging XL Center arena lined up at a hearing Tuesday to back the $250 million project, but the uncertainty of whether the money will be there to pay for it hung over the meeting…
There is growing resistance to using bonds — essentially the state’s credit card — for big ticket projects when funding is being cut to social services, road improvements and school construction…
“The state simply can’t afford these kinds of projects at this fiscal moment,” Sen. Joe Markley, R-Southington, said, at the hearing. “Bonding and debt service has grown dramatically and terrifyingly … And $250 million or whatever the final price tag is, we can’t afford in these times.”
I’ve been to the Hartford arena, and I’m sure renovations would be nice (though the place is hardly falling down). But Connecticut already has plenty of other concert venues (the arena in Bridgeport, the Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods casinos, there’s no major pro sports team using the Hartford arena, and while the arena is currently losing about $3 million a year, spending $250 million to save $3 million a year is beyond stupid, so what’s the urgency, exactly?
The authority has said the renovations are necessary if the city hopes to bring major league hockey back to Hartford, absent since 1997 when the Hartford Whalers left…
“If we don’t take action and we leave the thing as it is, how can we attract new businesses, new people, millennials?” said Scott St. Laurent, secretary of the Hartford Whalers Booster Club, who was wearing a Whalers jersey. “How can we attract them to downtown if we don’t give them anything to do?”
There you have it: Connecticut is considering spending $250 million on arena renovations because millennials — who are already moving to downtown Hartford in droves — won’t go downtown unless they can watch an imaginary hockey team. At least this would make everybody forget about the Yard Goats fiasco, though I’m not sure in a good way.
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.
Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy says he’s been contacted by several groups looking to revive the Hartford Whalers — if the state chips in for improvements to Hartford’s arena:
“Over the last six months I have been contacted by several groups who are interested in knowing that should they acquire a team and win the rights to move that team, would we be interested in competing for that team that is with facilities, housing? I have indicated time and time again that we would be interested, although probably not at our sole expense.”
That’s pretty vague, but then, multiple people calling up the governor’s office and saying, “Hey, would you help us out if we could get a team?” is pretty nebulous to begin with. Malloy said he “encouraged at least two groups” (what, he can’t count that high?) that the state would be “active participants” if they were to acquire a team; who knows what that means, except that Connecticut is likely to see lots of haggling in its future over how much more to pour into the Hartford Civic Center (yes, it has a corporate name now, but I can’t be bothered to remember it) on top of the $35 million it just sunk into new scoreboards, concessions, and other facilities, or whether to build a whole new building, in exchange for a team that might never arrive.