March 18, 2019

Three seasons in, Hartford's $71M ballpark has sparked new energy but not promised development

Image | Contributed
Image | Contributed
Hartford's Dunkin' Donuts Park, home of the Eastern League Double-A Yard Goats, has found early success drawing plaudits for its design and fan experience. However, it has yet to attain the one goal for which it was built: Economic revival of the city's Downtown North quadrant.
Rendering | Contributed
(Above) An artistís sketch of how the cityís redeveloped Downtown North neighborhood around the ballpark might look someday. (Left) DoNo includes four separate quadrants with 32 total properties, mostly parking lots.
Randy Salvatore, CEO & President, RMS Cos.
Glendowlyn L. H. Thames, President, Hartford City Council
Andrew Zimbalist, Economics Professor, Smith College
Neil deMause, Journalist-author

As Hartford's Dunkin' Donuts Park readies for its April 11 home-opener and its third season hosting the Eastern League Double-A Yard Goats, the downtown stadium has already logged some impressive milestones.

It's been ranked the nation's best minor-league park two straight years. Last year, more than half, or 47 of the ballpark's home games were sellouts — drawing more than 400,000 visitors in all — better than each of its first two seasons, Yard Goats team officials said.

Though not yet title bound, Yard Goats fans rave about their team-stadium's intimacy and its affordability, which were priorities, the city and team says, in the design and construction of the $71 million publicly financed stadium.

However, amid those successes, the ballpark is barely into the early innings of fulfilling what proponents say is its ultimate mission and the reason it was built: Serving as an economic-development magnet to leverage tens of millions of dollars in public funds to attract hundreds of millions more in private investment around Hartford's newest entertainment venue.

While the stadium has brought new energy and fans to the city during the spring and summer months, it has so far largely struck out in delivering on its promise to spur development in Hartford's Downtown North (DoNo) quadrant, a linchpin of the city's plan to pay for the stadium.

The addition of taxable DoNo development was supposed to help the city pay the approximate $4.6 million annual debt on the ballpark's bonds. Currently, the city only draws about $1 million from its ballpark lease and a share of the team's non-baseball revenue, leaving city taxpayers to foot the more than $3 million annual deficit.

The state, in its more than $550 million bailout of the city last year, refused to pay off the stadium debt. It also yanked Hartford's ability to collect a stadium-ticket sales tax to pay for it.

Lingering skepticism, fueled by a pending, multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the city by the stadium's ex-developer, remains about whether the ballpark will deliver on supporters' ambitious vision for sparking redevelopment of the adjoining DoNo parcels just north of I-84.

At least one Hartford promoter still calls the ballpark a financial albatross for the city, reigniting the debate over whether it's smart policy for state and local governments to use taxpayer money to fund sports stadiums. Many economists say it's not.

But there is some hope for the future.

Fairfield County developer Randy Salvatore, who is the city's choice to redevelop DoNo, said he is eagerly awaiting the go-ahead with his $200 million vision to transform acres of mostly surface parking into a mixed development of apartments, condominiums/townhouses, a supermarket, other retail and office space and a parking garage.

He says his project is nearly shovel ready.

Standing in his way is the pending litigation between the city and Centerplan Construction, which was fired from the stadium and DoNo project and then sued the city for $90 million, alleging wrongful termination. Centerplan has placed liens on all the city's DoNo parcels, which means development can't move forward until the nearly two-year-old case is resolved.

A verdict may come sooner than expected: The judge in the case recently agreed to Centerplan's request to speed up the trial's start by three months; it's now scheduled to begin June 18.

What's not clear is the impact a Centerplan court victory might have on DoNo redevelopment or a timetable for the project.

When asked at a recent MetroHartford Alliance event when DoNo work might commence, Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin, who inherited the ballpark project from his predecessor and was originally skeptical of its financial impact, was blunt and honest.

"I have no idea," he said, adding that the city is seeking the ability to move forward with development on the land prior to completion of the Centerplan court case.

"When we have a clear legal avenue, we can move forward as quickly as possible," he said.

Salvatore says the city-Centerplan scrap hasn't discouraged his plans. Indeed, he says Hartford's prospects during the wait have only gotten better with news of Infosys' plans to bring at least 1,000 jobs downtown in the coming year or so. Also, his existing downtown property, The Goodwin Hotel, is performing well, he said.

"The litigation is the big obstacle,'' Salvatore said.

Best option

One of the ballpark's earliest and biggest boosters, while acknowledging the city's stadium lease/non-baseball revenue sharing pact tilts in the Yard Goats' favor, is confident that building the ballpark was the best way to jump-start DoNo redevelopment.

"I've said we ought to use this as our Bloomingdale's,'' said I. Charles Mathews, who oversaw the park's development and operation while, until last January, chair of the Hartford Stadium Authority. "You know what happens when you build a big mall?"

First, it draws other larger retailers, which in turn lure other small, merchants who want to thrive in the shadows of their larger brethren, said Mathews, a former three-term city councilman who was Hartford's deputy mayor in the early '90s.

Economic redevelopment of the 32 properties aggregated into four distinct clusters surrounding the ballpark was always the aim, he said, akin to what happened to West Hartford Center when the Blue Back Square mixed-use development debuted more than a decade ago.

"It would be our Blue Back. And Dunkin' Donuts Park would be our Bloomingdale's,'' Mathews said.

From city hall's vantage point, the stadium has won over some skeptics. City council President Glendowlyn L. H. Thames admits being among the stadium's early doubters.

A lifelong city resident, she recalls Hartford leaders' previous stalled attempts at jump-starting development around downtown's gateway to the city's Clay-Arsenal and other North End neighborhoods. Thames said she has enjoyed attending Yard Goats games with her family, reminding her of days when the Hartford Whalers hockey team filled the then downtown Civic Center, now the XL Center.

"OK, we have something here,'' she said of the Goats and their new home.

She said communities like Hartford that harbor deep economic-development ambitions often miss opportunities to get community buy-in on publicly financed projects because they don't take time to explain why projects exist or situated where they are.

"Somehow elected officials and residents need to do a better job of communicating the value proposition of taking risks,'' said Thames, who manages the small business innovation group, CTNext, within Connecticut Innovations, the state's quasi-public technology-investment arm.

"Government plays a role in that,'" she said. "We can always debate that as good or bad. But sometimes we have to take those risks.''

State Treasurer Shawn Wooden, who was Hartford city council president and a supporter when the stadium deal was announced, said "there is no question'' the team and ballpark "have delivered badly-needed new energy and economic life to the city."

Still skeptical

Not everyone is convinced the Dunkin' Donuts Park investment will pay off for the city.

City council member Larry Deutsch, a physician and member of the Working Families Party, says he remains suspect that the ballpark can trigger DoNo development sufficient enough to benefit city coffers and residents.

"In the final analysis,'' Deutsch said, "the overall benefit to the people of the city cannot yet be measured.''

Still, Deutsch says he hopes the city's DoNo vision comes to fruition, but that it does so in a way that its benefits cross the lines of race and socioeconomic status.

"Of course, along with meaningful community-benefits agreements, which we don't have, and including affordable housing,'' Deutsch said. "It's important so that we don't have a downtown exclusive by economic level or race.''

Some experts point to U.S. municipalities' checkered histories using public money to finance development of sports arenas as a cautionary tale for Hartford's economic-development ambitions.

Andrew Zimbalist is an economics professor at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., who authored "Sports, Jobs & Taxes: The Economic Impact of Sports Teams and Stadiums." Zimbalist says that once communities commit to a stadium, they effectively divert money and other vital resources that could be used to improve school curricula or fix roads, among other public services.

Also, land on which a public ballpark sits no longer generates tax revenue to a city, further impinging its finances, he said.

When asked about Hartford's DoNo ambitions tied to the ballpark, Zimbalist said, "It doesn't look very encouraging to me.''

Neil deMause, a Brooklyn, N.Y., journalist-author, has examined dozens of stadium deals, including Hartford's, over the last 20 years, and concludes their overall economic contributions are minimal at worst, and difficult to measure at best.

"There's an impression in the sports world that, if you build it, they will come,'' said deMause, a Wesleyan University alum and co-author of "Field of Schemes: How the Great Stadium Swindle Turns Public Money into Private Profit." "If there is a positive impact, it is so small that it's not going to be measurable in the data.''

In an interview, Mayor Bronin acknowledged his concerns about his predecessor's decision to publicly fund the stadium.

"My objections to the ballpark,'' the mayor said, "were that the numbers never really made sense to me. And that concern has been borne out.''

He also defended his decision to fire Centerplan, even though it's led to a prolonged court battle that has delayed DoNo development.

"There really is no question in my mind" that firing Centerplan as stadium contractor was in the city's best interest, he said. He pointed as proof to the $42 million that Centerplan's bond insurer spent fixing some of the contractor's early work and completing the stadium. The project also went millions of dollars over its original budget.

Bronin also credited the "beautiful park'' for drawing tens of thousands of baseball fans into the city.

Public-private investment

David Panagore, Hartford's chief operating officer from 2009 to 2012 and who for a brief period also doubled as the city's director of development services, points to the city's long track record of using public infrastructure investment to spur private development.

It has worked in the past, said Panagore, now town manager of Provincetown, Mass.

For example, the city invested in the redevelopment of the former Colt Armory in the South End, expecting to spur additional private investment and property-tax collections in around the historic ex-gunmaking campus, a portion of which is now a national park.

That's worked to some extent with the addition of new apartments and office tenants in the area. Bloomfield's Thomas Hooker Brewing Co., which years ago had plans to open near Dunkin' Donuts Park, debuted in 2017 a tasting room on the ground floor of Colt's South Armory.

Panagore said Hartford's payback from the ballpark will come not from revenues shared with the Yard Goats, but from increased property taxes and economic activity from a revitalized DoNo. Increased job prospects for city residents and other intangibles also will accrue.

Still, other challenges await Hartford's DoNo redevelopment vision, Panagore said. There is the pending plan to lower the I-84 highway viaduct to grade, which Panagore says threatens to further bisect Hartford, essentially creating two downtowns. City leaders also must be certain as to the type of development they want in the DoNo corridor.

"If you build a supermarket,'' he said, "would people want to go grocery shopping if there's a ballgame that day?''

Another lesson painfully learned from the city's experience of first choosing Centerplan and later firing it and CEO Robert Landino as developer-builder, says Mathews, is that whenever developers come aboard on big projects, "they need to have some skin in the game.''

"That means if the project gets into hot water, they'll stay and fight it out, not cut and run,'' Mathews said.

Asked for the Yard Goats' redevelopment vision around Dunkin' Donuts Park, team President Tim Restall would only say, "I think whatever is built will complement the ballpark and will complement the ballpark experience.''

Even if the stadium is a financial drag on the city's finances it has provided a boost to downtown, luring hundreds of thousands of people to Hartford during the traditionally slow summer months. That's helped local restaurants.

The Yard Goats, too, have embraced the community. City residents hold many of the seasonal stadium jobs — groundskeeping, ticket sales, gate admissions and concessions — as mandated by the team's lease. The Goats, too, provide in-stadium space gamedays to a rotating roster of local restaurants and merchants who can expose fans to their wares. The team also supports city and area youth with giveaways of free tickets to school groups, churches and other nonprofits.

Development agreement

Salvatore, of RMS Cos., the new proposed DoNo developer, said he has found the city open and reasonable.

Indeed, Salvatore, whose Stamford partnership bought and reopened downtown Hartford's Goodwin Hotel, said his interest in remaking DoNo has only grown since the city announced his selection of his $200 million development bid last July.

He recently reached a development agreement with the city for the first phase of the project, which will get a public hearing March 18.

It calls for a $46 million investment at 1212 Main St., which will include a 200,000-square-foot mixed-use building containing 200 living units, plus 11,000 square feet of retail, and 259 parking spaces.

There will be an affordable-housing component to the project, which is angling for some public financing.

Salvatore is asking for funding assistance from the Capital Region Development Authority averaging $60,000 per unit of housing to be built in DoNo. The balance of the project pricetag will come from bank financing and equity, Salvatore said.

CRDA Executive Director Michael Freimuth said the quasi-public co-development overseer for Hartford and neighboring suburbs has pledged $12 million towards RMS' first-phase "Parcel C'' development.

The entire project, if completed, could include up to 800 apartments and 60,000 square feet of retail.

However, until the Centerplan v. Hartford lawsuit is resolved, CRDA has shifted its funds to raze the city-owned vacant data center on Windsor Street and make other pre-development site preparations in DoNo, Freimuth said.

He added that it's critical for development within DoNo to occur sooner than not.

"Revenues from the subsequent development are important to not only service the debt on the ballpark and maintain a solid capital reserve for it, but to also generate tax revenue and jobs to the city that were envisioned as the upside to the actual ballpark's contributions," he said. "Delaying the development obviously prevents the city from meeting these objectives."

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