XL Cen­ter plan scaled back

Agency that over­sees arena es­ti­mates new pro­posal would cost $100 mil­lion

Hartford Courant - - Front Page - By Ken­neth R. Gos­selin kgos­[email protected]

HART­FORD – The Cap­i­tal Re­gion Devel­op­ment Au­thor­ity will take to the road with a new, down­sized ren­o­va­tion pro­posal for Hart­ford’s XL Cen­ter to build sup­port with a newly elected leg­is­la­ture and gover­nor.

The quasi-state agency that over­sees the 43-year-old arena es­ti­mates the new pro­posal would cost $100 mil­lion. The vi­sion is far more mod­est than the $250 mil­lion trans­for­ma­tion that failed to gain trac­tion in re­cent years among law­mak­ers be­lea­guered by a spi­ral­ing bud­get deficit de­spite strong sup­port from Gov. Dan­nel P. Mal­loy.

The down­sized pro­posal most no­tably elim­i­nates the costli­est item — a sec­ond con­course — and fo­cuses the change on the lower half of the 16,000-seat arena.

In­vest­ments would be more sharply tar­geted at im­prove­ments that would boost rev­enue and cut op­er­at­ing ex­penses, all with the goal of mak­ing a venue that now loses $1 mil­lion to $2 mil­lion a year run in the black. Ren­o­va­tions also would help keep the venue more com­pet­i­tive, CRDA says.

Michael W. Freimuth, CRDA’s ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor, said the more mod­est pro­posal, which would be con­structed in stages spread­ing out the cost over years, at­tempts to again plot a fu­ture course for the venue

that opened in 1975 as the Hart­ford Civic Cen­ter.

“We need to have it go­ing some place,” Freimuth said. “Right now, we’re run­ning in place. It keeps beg­ging the ques­tion: Are we or are we not go­ing to keep the build­ing? There are a lot of folks who are say­ing, ‘We’re done.’ And then there are some say­ing, “No! We have to get the NHL and the Whalers are com­ing back.’ We live in this world in be­tween.”

Freimuth said the $100 mil­lion pro­posal does not fore­stall a grander up­date in the fu­ture, but rec­og­nizes the re­al­ity that arena to­day is more of a “col­lege build­ing” than a “pro­fes­sional build­ing.”

UConn — a ma­jor tenant with its men’s and women’s bas­ket­ball and hockey pro­grams — was con­sulted as the new pro­posal was de­vel­oped.

CRDA hopes to bol­ster its ar­gu­ment for the new pro­posal by launch­ing a study that will as­sess the eco­nomic ben­e­fits of both the arena and what the arena does for lo­cal restau­rants, ho­tels and park­ing venues in the city. The study is due in early Fe­bru­ary.

“When peo­ple build these build­ings in other parts of the coun­try, they cap­ture all that,” Freimuth said. “And we should put a rope around those dol­lars and jus­tify the in­vest­ment in this pub­lic build­ing. We don’t do that here. We divorce it.”

If there is sup­port at the state Capi­tol, a pub­lic hear­ing would be held on the down­sized pro­posal and CRDA’s board would have to adopt the pro­posal for it to move for­ward. CRDA’s board, which was briefed on the new pro­posal Thurs­day night, has strongly backed the push for ren­o­va­tions.

The down­sized pro­posal was de­vel­oped by SCI Ar­chi­tects of New York and Stafford Sports, a sports and en­ter­tain­ment con­sult­ing firm in New Jer­sey, the same part­ners that de­vel­oped the $250 mil­lion vi­sion. The lat­est ren­di­tion em­pha­sizes “pre­mium” seat­ing such as suites and loges — more in­for­mal “gath­er­ing” spa­ces — in the lower half of the arena.

In a shift from the once-pop­u­lar sky­boxes when the XL was built, a grow­ing num­ber of pa­trons now want to be closer to the ac­tion and in spa­ces that don’t re­strict them to a sin­gle seat, Freimuth said.

The ad­van­tage for the XL, Freimuth said, is that those pa­trons are will­ing to pay more and are more likely to buy food and drink that come with that seat­ing.

As with the $250 mil­lion makeover, this more mod­est pro­posal still rests on CRDA ac­quir­ing the atrium and now mostly va­cant store­front space along the en­trance from Trum­bull Street. CRDA has been ne­go­ti­at­ing with North­land In­vest­ment Corp., the owner of the space, for months, but the two sides have been un­able to reach an agree­ment on price.

In the sum­mer, CRDA backed off from a push to take the space by em­i­nent do­main af­ter a nasty pub­lic spat with North­land. But CRDA has not removed the al­ter­na­tive as an op­tion in the fu­ture.

The atrium would pro­vide much­needed space to ease con­ges­tion in the ex­ist­ing con­course, CRDA says. The area would also in­clude ad­di­tional re­strooms and con­ces­sions. The box of­fice would be re­lo­cated to the street; and knock­ing down the wall be­tween the atrium and the arena would give an un­ob­structed view from the en­try off Trum­bull Street to the arena.

Freimuth said the new ver­sion calls for a less grand en­trance than the $250 mil­lion plan.

Cru­cial to the $100 mil­lion al­ter­na­tive is pur­su­ing some ma­jor up­grades to build­ing heat­ing, cool­ing and plumb­ing sys­tems. Right now, those sys­tems break down and push up the tab for re­pair costs.

For in­stance, a re­cent ren­o­va­tion up­graded re­strooms but not the 40year-old plumb­ing that ser­vices them.

Robert Saint, chief of CRDA’s con­struc­tion ser­vices, said the new pro­posal will serve the 12,000 visitors that typ­i­cally at­tend the more pop­u­lar events at the XL Cen­ter.

The new pro­posal also comes as CRDA eval­u­ates a po­ten­tial sale of the venue to a pri­vate op­er­a­tor. One bid­der emerged, Oak Street Real Estate Cap­i­tal, a Chicago pri­vate eq­uity firm, and ne­go­ti­a­tions are on­go­ing.

The leg­is­la­ture or­dered a sale be ex­plored in 2017, as con­cerns mounted about the cost to the state for ren­o­va­tions, the amount of money the arena was los­ing and the state sub­sidy needed to bal­ance the books.

Spend­ing on big-ticket im­prove­ments for the arena has ramped up in re­cent years. In 2014, the leg­is­la­ture ap­proved $35 mil­lion to spruce up a drab in­te­rior, ad­ding new seat­ing, up­grad­ing fire sys­tems so in­te­rior doors could be removed and cre­at­ing a bar fac­ing the arena.

The idea was to ex­tend the life of the arena until a long-term plan was de­vel­oped. Mean­while, an­other $3.5 mil­lion was spent on ice-mak­ing sys­tem for the arena’s rink and other im­prove­ments.

In 2017, the leg­is­la­ture backed an­other $40 mil­lion to pur­chase the atrium and sur­round­ing space from North­land and make im­prove­ments that would make the arena at­trac­tive to a pur­chaser.

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