March 13, 2017
Focus: Construction

What fans, taxpayers get with a $250M XL Center makeover

HBJ PHOTO | Patricia Daddona
HBJ PHOTO | Patricia Daddona
The Capital Region Development Authority's Mike Freimuth (right) and Robert Saint stand in XL Center's “fan club” and describe possible benefits of a renovated arena.

Luxurious Additions

A $250 million renovation would add new suites and luxury seating at the XL Center. Here's a breakdown:

• The existing building has a fan club with limited access to the bowl, 15 suites located 76 feet above the rink floor, 31 suites 87 feet above the rink floor, and a club at level 118.

• The transformed arena will have eight bunker suites located just above the rink floor, 14 suites located on the main concourse (30 feet above the rink floor) and 14 suites located 40 feet above the rink floor.

• In addition, there will be a club located at the rink floor level adjacent to the locker rooms, a loge club located on the east side of the main concourse, and a terrace club located on the west side of the main concourse.

• Some of the existing clubs and suites in the arena's upper levels will be transformed into a concourse bar and two sponsor suites, as well as a sports bar and ledge seats.

State lawmakers have a difficult decision in the months ahead on whether or not to invest $250 million to renovate the aging XL Center.

But the much harder task will be the actual reconstruction of the 42-year-old facility, should the project get the go-ahead.

The most demanding chore, state officials say, will be managing the flow of the entire four-year project in a way that bookends sports activity around the late spring and summer construction season.

Michael Freimuth, executive director of the Capital Region Development Authority (CRDA), and Robert Saint, director of construction services, said in a recent, wide-ranging interview inside the building's newest addition, the "fan club," that everything from acquiring the adjacent atrium and storefronts so the building can front Trumbull Street, to moving suites to floor level and replacing electrical, HVAC and plumbing systems constitutes a challenge.

But oversight over four years — from April through August, gradually exposing sports fans and even occasional concert-goers, to new digs — has to flow smoothly and in a way that doesn't disrupt ongoing hockey and basketball seasons, they said.

"Doing the work in a short period of time, and having the building meet all the life safety codes and at the end of that period be useable, that's the biggest challenge," Saint said.

Opened as the Hartford Civic Center in 1975 and formerly home to the Hartford Whalers, the XL Center has weathered a roof collapse in 1978 and loss of pro hockey in 1997. With a capacity today of approximately 16,000, the venue was upgraded in 2014 with $35 million worth of improvements to mechanical systems, public spaces, locker rooms and a fan club area where people congregate before and after events.

It's that new fan club, with its tables and seating well above the hockey rink that doubles as a basketball court, that has demonstrated just how valuable a full-fledged renovation could be, Freimuth said.

"There are people in here an hour before game time just partying in this one spot," Freimuth said of the existing fan club area. "They wouldn't have come just to sit in their seats for an hour. There's two things going on there: The socialization and utilization of the building, and there's also money being made."

A transformed arena would include new clubs, premium seating, dining options and other amenities, Saint said, to help raise additional revenues for a building that currently loses money annually.

XL Center lost about 500 seats to the 2014 renovation, but when access is reconfigured around two concourses instead of one, existing stairwells between the seats will be replaced with seating, boosting capacity to about 17,000 seats for hockey and 18,000 for basketball, Saint said.

There will be 28 suites on two levels plus up to eight suites right behind the bench. The majority of the suites, which are higher up now, will be on the floor, closer to the action.

The suites create a living-room environment with a pantry, kitchen and a corridor out into premium seats, he added.

"That's where the teams come out and go to the ice or the court, so there's that kind of excitement [that isn't available now]," Freimuth said. "[Fans] are high-fiving the team members as they run by."

The two bowls feeding into a single concourse impedes movement and jams up restrooms and concessions, Saint explained. The "bowl" is the large open area with sloping seats that accommodate sporting events, shows and concerts. With two concourses, general admission would be at the top and premium seating at the bottom.

Payoffs

Meantime, acquiring the Hartford 21 retail complex that surrounds the arena, where the atrium, retail space and some parking is located, is key, Freimuth and Saint say.

Owned by Northland Investment Corp., the space includes storefronts CRDA would be willing to discount to retailers, Freimuth said.

"We pay today to operate a lot of that atrium space anyway, so there's an economy of us paying ourselves, if you will, and avoiding that expense," he added.

Adding the amenities that build excitement is possible because, despite the age of the building and the outdated electrical and mechanical systems, XL Center's structure is sound. But replacing those systems is critical because the building has not been adequately maintained, Saint said.

Payoffs to the costly upgrade include not only extending the building's life and reducing operating subsidies, but attracting more sporting events and some concerts as well as generating economic value through greater activity downtown, Freimuth says.

The renovation would also give the XL Center the ability to potentially host an NHL hockey team like the New York Islanders, Freimuth and Saint say, though additional work and funds would be required.

But without the renovation, even sporting events hosted today – mainly UConn basketball and hockey and the Hartford Wolf Pack – would continue to be hampered by everything from a lack of humidity control to eight giant overhead doors, one of which is malfunctioning and has to be opened manually, Freimuth said.

"Muddling through" won't cost $250 million, but it won't solve existing problems while attracting new business like the investment will, Freimuth concludes.

"We'll still be spending on big-ticket items like electric and people will say, 'Why?,' " he said. "For what? Or we can tackle this and buy ourselves we believe a 20-year extension on life. These buildings have a 20-year life. We're 42 years old. We've got our money back twice. Now we've got to re-up."

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