Lamont not committing to proposed XL Center renovation
Governor-elect awaits more discussion on plan
HARTFORD – Gov.-elect Ned Lamont — who was critical of the financial bailout for the city of Hartford during the recent political campaign — is not siding one way or the other on a new plan for a downsized, $100 million renovation of the city’s aging XL Center arena.
The Capital Region Development Authority’s “proposal represents a serious investment in Hartford’s XL Center, and while such plans are in the early stages, the gov.-elect looks forward to a discussion on how a responsibly financed plan for the arena could position Connecticut as a more vibrant home for our families and busi- nesses,” Lamont spokesman Lacey J. Rose said, in a written statement Friday.
Lamont’s predecessor, Dannel P. Malloy, was a strong proponent of renovations at the 43-year-old arena in the heart of downtown. In recent years, Malloy supported a $250 million, top-to-bottom makeover that failed to gain traction with state lawmakers beset by a deepening budget deficit.
While Lamont did not commit one way or another Friday, his support would be critical for passage of any renovation plan — even if it is downsized by $150 million.
If Lamont lands in favor, it will be a tricky political gambit: he won the governor’s race with heavy support from the state’s largest cities, and leaders in some of those cities are still smarting from the Hartford bailout.
At CRDA’s board of directors meeting
Thursday night — where the downsized XL arena proposal was unveiled — board member and Malloy budget chief Ben Barnes said that ill will still exists.
“It’s going to be a big ask,” Barnes said. “Obviously, the assistance we’ve provided to Hartford, I think, lingers in the political environment and there may be some resentment. People in other cities may feel as it is inappropriate to do another big [project] in Hartford.”
Barnes said one of the biggest challenges to selling such a large project in the legislature will be showing that it can run independently without the $1 million to $2 million in state funding needed annually to offset operating losses.
“You can’t go back and require that there be $3 million a year in some budget in the state of Connecticut to subsidize operations at the venue,” Barnes said.
The $100 million proposal would be sharply focused on improvements that would boost revenue, such as “premium” seating, and cut operating expenses, replacing building systems that now frequently breakdown and lead to expensive repair bills.
Forecasts for the $250 million proposal, according to CRDA, could have made the renovated arena run in the black. But whether that would happen in the downsized plan is unclear, though CRDAsays that would be the goal.
CRDAhopes to build its case for the latest proposal with an economic impact study it has launched. The study will examine how the arena affects restaurants, hotels, parking areas, property values in the surrounding area.
The improvements would be spread out over multiple years and more easily constructed in pieces than the $250 million proposal, CRDA says.
Speaker of the House Matt Ritter, DHartford, said Friday he intends to meet with representatives of CRDA after Jan. 1.
“Anytime you can cut a cost by $150 million, you are going to get people’s attention,” Ritter said. “This is a good start to present to a lot of different people. It goes back to what I said two years ago, you can’t just knock it downor let it fall into disrepair.”
Ritter said any renovation plan must carefully balance fiscal prudence with avoiding “doing this on the cheap.”
Looking ahead to the legislative session, Ritter said he is optimistic that lawmakers can reach some sort of agreement on the arena.
The downsized plan removes the most expensive item in the $250 million proposal: a second concourse on the upper level.
Instead, the emphasis is on the lower half of the bowl. “Premium” seating — suites, loge seating and bunker suites — that command higher ticket prices and the services that go with them would be added, though less than in the $250 million plan.
The upper half of the “bowl” would concentrate on general admission. The existing concourse — often congested before and after events — would be expanded into the atrium. The expanded concourse would include more concessions and restrooms, easing waits in line elsewhere in the venue.
Patrons entering from the main Trumbull Street entrance would see the arena because the wall separating the atrium and the arena would be knocked down.
The atrium and surrounding retail space — running north from the driveway of the Hartford 21 apartment tower to Church Street — would still need to be acquired from owner Northland Investment Corp. Months of negotiations over the so-called “Trumbull Block” have not resulted in an agreement, and CRDA has backed off from pursuing eminent domain, at least for now.
The elimination of the second concourse means CRDA might not need the floors above the atrium, “which means that our requirement for the Trumbull Block is changed, potentially,” Robert Saint, head of construction services at CRDA, told the quasi-public agency’s board Thursday.