La­mont not com­mit­ting to pro­posed XL Cen­ter ren­o­va­tion

Gov­er­nor-elect awaits more dis­cus­sion on plan

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

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.

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