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October 24, 2022

CRDA in serious talks with global sports, entertainment company on multimillion-dollar XL Center investment

HBJ PHOTO | GREG BORDONARO The XL Center in downtown Hartford.

The Capital Region Development Authority is angling for a deal with a Los Angeles-based international sports and entertainment company that could invest tens of millions of dollars into the aging XL Center in downtown Hartford.

CRDA Executive Director Michael Freimuth recently told his board — which oversees the XL Center on behalf of the city of Hartford — that Oak View Group (OVG) is interested in a deal that could see the company putting much of its own funding into the XL Center.

Mike Freimuth

That interest is predicated on a recent study that confirmed the ability to make desired upgrades to staging and loading facilities at the roughly 47-year-old arena, which is home to UConn men’s and women’s basketball and hockey — as well as other entertainment events — and is still seen by many as a key economic development tool for the city.

“We figured out how to resolve the physical issues that were critical to OVG’s business model,” Freimuth said in a recent interview. “We would like them to invest in the building. We’ll do the elevators and escalators and we will give them operational rights to run the building for a longer period of time — try to share with them the upside and minimize our downside.”

CRDA and OVG are exploring a potential agreement that could put the XL Center under OVG’s management for an extended period, and which would govern the split of revenues, expenses, liabilities and future costs.

OVG already manages the XL Center on behalf of the CRDA. OVG took over management following its November 2021 acquisition of Spectra, a venue management and hospitality company.

At the time of the deal, Spectra was nearing the end of a multiyear XL Center contract. That contract with OVG has been extended to 2025 due to the venue’s prolonged shutdown during the COVID-19 pandemic, Freimuth said.

Freimuth said he believes OVG might provide $20 million to $30 million for upgrades directly impacting customer experience. That would offset part of a $100 million program of repairs and upgrades currently envisioned for the roughly 15,500-seat venue.

A rendering showing a sports betting lounge now under construction.

Pared down rehab

State and local officials have sought a path forward for the deteriorating and outdated XL Center for the better part of a decade.

The CRDA board had, in 2018, signed onto a $250 million overhaul recommended by consultants. But state lawmakers balked at the price tag, sending the economic development agency and its consultant — SCI Architects — back to the drawing board.

That resulted in a pared back plan focused on upgrades to the “lower bowl” portion of the XL, improving staging, adding premium seating close to the stage, and other upgrades.

Planned improvements include a series of retractable walls that could close off some of XL’s seating, shrinking capacity to 11,500. That would allow the arena to meet modern standards for the ratio of bathrooms and concession stands to seats, improving XL Center’s odds of pulling in more acts, Freimuth said.

The walls could be pushed back for larger events requiring more seating.

Extensive improvements to IT infrastructure and the show-equipment loading area are also planned.

“We are leaving a lot of money on the table because we don’t have the right product,” Freimuth said.

“That’s where the $100 million project comes in.”

A rendering showing how portions of the XL Center could look under a $100 million renovation plan.

In 2019, the General Assembly allocated $65 million toward this pared-down upgrade of the XL.

Those funds need confirmation from the state Bond Commission. Before that happens, CRDA and state officials hope to secure private money to close the gap between taxpayer funding and the $100 million renovation plan.

David Lehman, commissioner of the state Department of Economic and  Community Development, said he is following the negotiations.

David Lehman

He acknowledged the partnership with OVG is not yet certain.

“We think if we can achieve this, this is the best outcome for the building,” Lehman said. “You are going to have an operator who is going to have more skin in the game and is going to be focused on more activity, more events in the XL. …

You are just going to have a lot more going on at the center if we have an operator that knows how to bring in concerts, that knows how to bring in shows.”

Revitalization efforts

The state is already spending significant funds on XL Center maintenance before it dives into the $100 million plan.

CRDA has tapped $40 million approved for the XL Center in 2017 to cover the costs of $15 million in ongoing repairs and upgrades —including construction of a highly-anticipated sports bar/sports betting lounge on the edge of the building overlooking Ann Uccello Street.

Providence-based Dimeo Construction is building the lounge under a contract that includes improvements to the building’s western concourse, construction of additional restrooms, commercial kitchen improvements and upgrades to other systems. The sports betting facility was originally targeted to open this fall, but its debut has been pushed back to the spring due to supply chain issues.

The XL Center currently runs at a roughly $2 million annual deficit, requiring a taxpayer subsidy for operations. Boosters say that cost is more than made up for by sales taxes paid by event attendees.

House Speaker Matt Ritter (D-Hartford) said the venue packs restaurants and hotels during sporting events and performances.

Matt Ritter

With 21% of the city’s labor force now working remotely, that’s a draw Hartford cannot afford to lose, he said.

Ritter said he agrees a public-private partnership is the best route to a grander renovation that will keep the arena operational and relevant for the long term. He sees it as a necessary element in the revitalization of Hartford, a broader effort that has, over the past decade, included the addition of thousands of market-rate apartments downtown.

“There are some people who say knock it down,” Ritter said of the XL Center. “That’s just the Connecticut mentality I think we have to get over: ‘Oh we are just Connecticut and who cares.’ If you had asked people 15 years ago if we could build over 2,000 units (of downtown housing) and they would be 85% to 90% occupied, the naysayers would have said that’s absurd.”

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