Nearly 15 years ago, Art Ward was afraid he was killing the golden goose. "I was shaking when I was telling them what to do," recalled Ward, now the mayor of Bristol. "Were they going to leave?"
Despite the conditions Ward and other members of the city's zoning board levied on ESPN as it went through one of its many expansion projects at its Middle Road campus, the "worldwide leader" did not leave Bristol, and in fact, has further strengthened its ties to the city that first gave it a home in 1979.
Today, ESPN is the city's largest taxpayer, a powerful aid in recruiting new business and a quiet benefactor of the city of about 60,000.
"They are absolutely committed to the community," Ward said recently while recounting the local community projects ESPN has undertaken throughout the years without much fanfare.
And the style is remarkably low key for the brand known for its aggressive and accomplished marketing.
Ward said he received a phone call from ESPN president George Bodenheimer one summer afternoon in 2009 asking if the mayor could stop down at Cambridge Park. Ward complied, making the short drive to the park where he found 30 ESPN executives and an old "sandlot baseball field."
"They tore that up, laid down a whole new field, built a backstop and two dugouts and the only outsiders who were there were (two contractors overseeing the project)," Ward said. "It's now a beautiful complex."
In recent years, ESPN has made major contributions to the Imagine Nation Museum and the Boys & Girls Club and Family Center of Bristol, for which it purchased land to assist expansion efforts. Employees have devoted time to these and hundreds of other community organizations and events in the city over the years, all without so much as a public mention.
But ESPN's contributions go far beyond just the charitable. The sports giant, which employs nearly 4,100 people locally and is adding employees in Bristol at the rate of 150-200 a year, according to vice president of communications Mike Soltys, is the city's top taxpayer, accounting for 6.46 percent to the city's Grand List in 2010.
The company recently opened a renovated and expanded radio broadcast center, shifted the majority of its ESPN the Magazine jobs to Bristol, and is building a day care center across the street from its headquarters. Bright Horizons will run the 50,000 sq. ft. facility, which is expected to offer care for up to 250 children while employing as many as 70 people.
On Aug. 2, it became the third recipient of the state's 'First Five' incentive package that includes about $25 million in loans and training grants connected to the addition of a second digital production facility, the 19th building on the campus. While ESPN has promised to add more than 200 jobs, it says it may add 800 within the five-year window of the deal.
"When we started out (in 1979), we were in one small building, and in the 32 years we've been here, there has never not been some sort of construction (going on)," said Soltys.
Besides the strong relationship between the city and its largest business, Bristol offers a number of other advantages which ESPN has been able to utilize.
"It's been an advantage to our growth on many fronts," Soltys said. "For instance, we've tripled our square footage (in the past 10 years); that would be very difficult to do in New York City."
And ESPN has brought immeasurable attention to the city, although not always positive. A recent book chronicling the rise of ESPN quotes a number of former employees sharing a decidedly negative view of Bristol. Included is a quote attributed to former ESPN chairman Steve Bornstein suggesting that the number of sexual harassment complaints in the organization was due to its location. "It's one hundred miles from real civilization, and you got the kind of testosterone, jock mentality, frat house approach that's pretty much a recipe for stupid decisions being made," he is quoted as saying.
Despite the image left by the book — "Those Guys Who Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN," written by James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales — no one around ESPN today or involved with the city believes it will have any lasting impact on the image of Bristol. Soltys dismissed the comments as nothing more than former ESPN employees who haven't worked for the company in 15 or 20 years.
Jonathan Rosenthal, executive director of the Bristol Development Authority, said he doesn't foresee any problems in recruiting businesses to the city because of the book.
"I'm just not aware of anybody who has a problem," Rosenthal said. In fact, Rosenthal is quick to point out that a 2010-2011 study by Money Magazine ranked Bristol 84th on the Top 100 communities to live in.
The presence of ESPN, which owns 116 acres and buildings totaling 875,000 square feet in the southeast section of the city, has led to a number of infrastructure projects, including the widening of Route 229 (Middle Street), over the years. In addition to the many smaller businesses that have popped up, there has also been the development of two industrial parks, further expanding the city's tax base.
And there is plenty of room for additional expansion, especially in the new Southeast Bristol Business Park, which has openings for 10 additional companies. Using a mixture of tax abatements and grants, Bristol continues to recruit businesses.
"There has been some birth of ancillary businesses [to ESPN]," Michael Nicastro, president and CEO of the Central Connecticut Chambers of Commerce, said. "Anytime you have a chance for cottage industries, we'd like to see more of that."
One business not related to ESPN that is enjoying its stay in Bristol is Precision Threaded Products. Located in the Southeast Bristol Business Park, the company, which makes aircraft components, relocated to Bristol from West Hartford in 2010.
"Bristol made it attractive," said owner Paul Nichols. "They made it financially feasible and pretty close to what it would have cost us to buy a 30-year-old building."
Precision, which employs 18, moved from a 7,000-square-foot building in West Hartford into 16,000 square feet in Bristol, leaving it room for future expansion.
To ensure the success and growth of its "hometown," ESPN has also been quick to assist the city in attracting new business, hosting luncheons and tours for prospects.
"We've been very open anytime the mayor is calling us to meet with anyone," Soltys said. "As we told Art (Ward), if it's important to him, we'll listen."
And for a city the size of Bristol, it can have no bigger supporter than "The Worldwide Leader."