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August 5, 2019

CRDA: Critical auditors’ report lacks ‘nuance’

HBJ Photo | Joe Cooper Hartford’s Dillon Stadium before construction crews began overhauling the historic site in Aug. 2018. The 5,500-seat stadium is now home to the Hartford Athletic soccer club.

The quasi-public agency responsible for the redevelopment of downtown Hartford and other city and regional neighborhoods is defending itself in the wake of a state auditors’ report critical of its handling of the city’s Dillon Stadium rebuilding project.

The state Auditors of Public Accounts said in its latest audit of the Capital Region Development Authority (CRDA) that the agency began funding too soon $4 million in state bond funds earmarked to re-seat and re-surface the decades-old stadium to accommodate pro soccer play.

Auditors found, and CRDA concurred, that the agency disbursed payments on the project before the city and Connecticut entrepreneur Bruce Mandell and his Hartford Sports Group (HSG) partners inked a lease agreement for Dillon.

Auditors recommended, among other things, that CRDA implement and tighten internal controls to avoid a repeat.

Michael Freimuth, CRDA executive director, said the auditors’ report “does not explain the nuances which were at play and were weighed heavily by CRDA staff and the Board’’ in executing the $14 million Dillon makeover.

HSG, owner of the Hartford Athletic United Soccer League (USL) franchise, inked a city lease to host games at Dillon, beginning this summer. Under the lease, the stadium also is available for off-season amateur sporting events and community activities.

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.

“The Hartford City Council approved the terms in April 2018, there was an agreement to construct the stadium in June 2018, the USL approved the franchise in July and bids and construction contracts were completed before any funds were expended” Freimuth said in a statement.

CRDA board Chair Suzanne Hopgood, in the joint statement, added, “What lagged was the final agreements between the city and the team that were being drafted by attorneys. The board carefully measured this risk and took steps to keep the project alive while the ‘Ts’ were crossed.”

Under CRDA, more than 1,100 new living units -- with hundreds more in the pipeline -- have been transformed from downtown Hartford’s aging office and commercial spaces. The agency, too, is a catalyst for redevelopment in city neighborhoods, such as the ongoing conversion of the vacant former Swift Factory site in Hartford’s North End.
CRDA also is coordinating with the town of East Hartford on its vision to redevelop and re-boot its Silver Lane commercial corridor.
Critics of the state’s reliance on quasi-public agencies to oversee certain municipal operations characterized the CRDA audit findings as more evidence that the state should look closer into how they’re run, even weigh disbanding them.
Even Gov. Ned Lamont and other state leaders in recent weeks have aired concerns about leadership and operations at two other quasi-public agencies -- the Connecticut Lottery Corp. and the Connecticut Port Authority.
“This disturbing finding is yet another example of the audacity of a quasi-public that feels it is beholden to no one,’’ State Senate Republican leader Len Fasano said in a statement. “For years, the state’s quasi-publics have been allowed to operate with little accountability. We have seen problems ranging from small issues, to huge breaches of public trust. The common denominator in all these cases is a lack of oversight. CRDA’s dangerously risky spending and disregard for the State Bond Commission is just the latest development in a long line of problems.’’

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