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August 11, 2014 SUMMER SERIES: HARTFORD IN 2024

Arena decision weighs heavily on Hartford's entertainment future

Photo | Pablo Robles Matthew Corey's McKinnon's Irish Pub relies on XL Center events, and the patrons it attracts to downtown Hartford, to keep his popular Asylum Street bar-restaurant up and running. He described the 40-year-old entertainment venue, which is reaching the end of its useful life, as “life or death,” for his small business. Soon state lawmakers will have to decide whether or not they are willing to invest upwards of $400 million to renovate or rebuild the arena with modern amenities, like the luxury seats shown in the rendering below.
Rendering | JCJ Architecture
Photo | HBJ File CRDA Executive Director Michael Freimuth is an astute deal maker but his toughest task will be scrounging up support for an overhaul of XL Center.
Renderings | Contributed The above renderings show where Hartford city leaders want to build a proposed $60 million ballpark for the New Britain Rock Cats. Two development groups, led by New York’s Leyland Alliance and Boston’s CV Properties, are vying to build the stadium and surrounding Downtown North area into apartments, retail, and commercial space.

In 2024, Hartford will be an entertainment magnet.

Sports fans will get their thrills year round, as UConn basketball and hockey commit to playing in a newly renovated and expanded XL Center with all the amenities including improved seating, scoreboard, restaurants, locker rooms and layout.

During spring and summer, baseball fans will grab a beer at Hooker Brewery's new downtown location before taking in a ballgame at the Rock Cats' stadium overlooking the Hartford skyline. Music enthusiasts will get their fill from Infinity Hall on Front Street as it attracts top acts to the Capital City. More concerts will also land at the XL Center, as artists pay homage to an arena that looks like new, thanks to state legislators agreeing to invest upwards of $400 million.

The city's arts and culture destinations will see significant attendance spikes as Millennials and empty nesters take up residence in newly built apartments. Bars and restaurants too will see a boost in business.

Sound like a fantasy? Well, it's not totally, but it may be perhaps the most optimistic outlook for Hartford's entertainment and sports scene — short of the return of an NHL franchise.

To get there, many things will have to go right, but projecting Hartford's entertainment future is a difficult task right now with the fate of several key projects up in the air.

Many signs point to stronger years ahead for restaurants, bars, and performance and cultural venues. The expected influx of new downtown residents will inarguably be the biggest plus. But the fate of the XL Center could literally make or break the city and its entertainment scene.

The aging venue, which booked attendance of approximately 550,000 in fiscal 2013, will need to be overhauled or rebuilt as its useful life dissipates.

It's also not yet clear how a proposed Rock Cats baseball stadium and related development in Downtown North would look and ultimately fare. The project could extend the core of downtown with a new destination center, but doubts about its economic impact — and the potential use of public funding to finance the $60 million ballpark — has stirred political backlash. As a third leg of the entertainment picture, the city's arts and cultural organizations also appear to be eyeing revenue and attendance growth, though budgets remain tight.

XL Center: Making the best bet possible

Michael Freimuth, executive director of the Capital Regional Development Authority (CRDA), knows the decision his board has to make in the coming year about XL Center's future carries high stakes. The price tag to overhaul or rebuild the nearly 40-year-old arena is estimated between $150 million and $400 million. A large chunk of that money will need to come from the state, meaning XL Center's fate is tied to politics as much as anything else. That's why many city boosters are keeping close tabs on this year's upcoming gubernatorial election, to see which way the political winds will be blowing in Hartford for the next four years.

Meantime, even if funds are approved to fully renovate or rebuild the arena, restaurants, bars and other small businesses, which rely on XL Center events to bring an influx of customers, would suffer during any dark period.

“It would disrupt a lot of folks,” Freimuth said during an interview at his Connecticut Convention Center office, which overlooks Front Street's growing number of restaurants and entertainment venues, including Infinity Hall, scheduled to open later this month.

Mike Zaleski, executive director of the Downtown Business Improvement District, agreed.

“[The XL Center] is a critical piece of the way that downtown Hartford operates,” Zaleski said. “If they are going to rebuild or renovate the structure in place, that would be a positive for the surrounding businesses.”

A major renovation performed in stages over several years would likely be the least disruptive to bars and restaurants, Freimuth said, because it would allow some events to go on.

But the decision will largely be based on the price tag to renovate or build anew. If a study recently commissioned by CRDA comes back later this year with the conclusion that modern amenities fans, teams and performers expect in a 21st century arena simply cannot fit in the current footprint, a new location would be needed — possibly adjacent to the Convention Center. And that could mean three or four years without a major indoor venue in the city.

“We're asking the question: Can we reuse this thing?” Freimuth said. “And I don't know the answer to that, sitting here right now.”

What if the state decides it doesn't have or want to spend the money it will take to revitalize the venue? “We'll try to muddle along,” Freimuth said. “We'll maybe make more improvements and bring the building up just another notch.”

But that's not what Freimuth is hoping for because he said the XL Center is vital to Hartford.

“I think the venue serves a very important purpose in the entertainment sense,” he said. “[Venues] are critical to the overall marketing and profile of a city, especially a capital city.”

He's not alone in that sentiment.

Matthew Corey, owner of McKinnon's Irish Pub on Asylum Street — a stone's throw away from XL Center — described the arena as “life or death” for his business.

“Friday night, with Dave Mathews in August when the city is dead, that's a $7,000 ring that will make up quite a difference,” Corey said. “That's rent plus a week of salaries.”

In comparison, a concert at the Xfinity Theatre less than two miles away might as well be in a different city, as far as his bar is concerned, Corey said.

Corey said he sees some positive signs for Hartford including new apartments being built as well as UConn hockey playing at the XL Center.

Bringing a pro team back to Hartford would be an obvious win for the entertainment district. Ideally, CRDA will know by the time it's ready to ask the legislature for funding if a professional sports team is interested in the XL Center.

Freimuth said there are currently no talks happening with a pro sports team, including in the NHL, which pulled its Whalers franchise from the city in 1997.

For any talks to have a chance there would have to be a funding commitment to rebuild the XL Center, as well as a strong ownership group and corporate support, he said.

Having certainty either way would help CRDA make the wisest choices possible on seating capacity and other amenities, he added.

“You don't want to build something, hustle the politics, hustle the dollars, move the political beast close to committing the dollars, and then have the bet wrong,” Freimuth said.

Envisioning a ballpark

Peter Stevens, CEO of Hartford's JCJ Architecture, sees major promise in a Rock Cats stadium in Hartford.

Stevens went to a wedding in the Midwest this summer, where he visited a nearby minor league park.

There was a special event going on with the Special Olympics, and the stadium was packed. The surrounding skyline reminded him of home.

“I said 'this is Hartford,'” Stevens recalls.

Stevens has a horse in the race: JCJ Architecture — which recently launched a sports division to capitalize on opportunities like the stadium — and several partners have submitted bids with the city to design and build the Rock Cats' proposed ballpark and surrounding development, he said.

JCJ was one of four development groups that responded to the city's Aug. 1 request for proposals, which is seeking a developer-construction manager to build a 9,000-seat stadium, 300 or more housing units and townhomes, and more than 100,000 square feet of ground-floor retail and commercial space on as many as five surrounding parcels.

Doubts anyone?

Indeed, the trend lines appear positive for downtown. But what keeps development officials up at night?

For CRDA's Freimuth, the worry lies outside Connecticut, about 26 miles up I-91 in Springfield. It's there where MGM appears poised — unless voters say otherwise in a November referendum — to build a resort casino.

Freimuth is crossing his fingers that the law authorizing casino gambling in Massachusetts is repealed.

“If Springfield evolves the way they're saying, it will impact the XL Center and the Convention Center,” he said. “That is truly a wild card in this discussion.”

For BID's Zaleski, the worry is more about marketing the city.

“I can't tell you how many people I talk to who have dated impressions of downtown Hartford — impressions that were formed a decade ago and aren't true,” he said. “My concern is that people won't take a fresh look at the city and everything that's going on.”

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