OP-ED | Bailing Out XL Would Widen Town-City Divide
It seems like every two or three years the state of Connecticut deludes itself into thinking it’ll see the return of the National Hockey League. That’s’ probably because we’re still haunted by the ghost of then-new Whalers owner Peter Karmanos, who faced with declining attendance in 1997, moved the hapless team to Raleigh, N.C.
Talk of bringing back an NHL franchise generally goes hand-in-glove with the fate of the ailing XL Center, known as the Hartford Civic Center while the Whalers still existed.
Now it looks like Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is tempting fate by proposing to borrow $250 million to refurbish the XL Center. That figure is about 25 to 35 percent of what it would cost to replace the aging arena, so Malloy is casting his proposal as a way of saving the taxpayers the expense of building a new facility. But on a tour of the center earlier this month, Malloy uttered the unthinkable about the aging hulk owned by the near-bankrupt city of Hartford:
“Either we close this facility in the not-too-distant future or we rebuild it. Because I’m certainly not going to propose that we spend $750 million to $1 billion on a new facility when we could accomplish so much of that at substantial savings to the taxpayers of the state of Connecticut,” he said.
Perhaps in an effort to gain support for his proposal, Malloy and Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin wrote a letter Feb. 3 to the ownership of the New York Islanders, whose landlord, the Russian-owned Barclay Center, wants to evict them because of poor attendance (third worst in the NHL).
Attracting the Islanders to XL is a long shot. They’d be better off in Quebec City, which has hundreds of thousands of rabid hockey fans, a new 16,000-seat arena, and no NHL team to play in it. Still, I will refrain from expressing my knee-jerk reaction that a quarter of a million bucks sounds like a colossally bad investment in a Capital City that is ranked as one of the worst of its kind in the nation.
But there could be an upside to this. Despite its problems, Hartford might be on the cusp of resurgence. The city has a new, energetic, well connected and competent mayor, Luke Bronin, who has taken painful steps to return Hartford to solvency, while touring surrounding towns to generate support for his efforts.
After a construction period that was nothing short of a nightmare, the brand-new 6,000 seat Dunkin’ Donuts Park is expected open next month with the April 13 home opener of the Hartford Yard Goats baseball team. It should be noted that the home park of the Double-A Yard Goats is only two blocks away from the XL.
Meanwhile, the XL Center continues to be the part-time home venue for some of the most successful UConn athletic teams: men’s and women’s basketball and the up-and-coming men’s ice hockey team. Less than a mile away is the Hartford Convention Center and across the river is Rentschler, the home field of the UConn football team, which just rehired the last great coach they had, Randy Edsall.
So there are plausible reasons to support a $250 million state aid package to refurbish the XL Center. My concern is that even if it is money well spent, we will see the resurgence of an ugly divide — what WNPR host Colin McEnroe calls “city vs. country” — that will pose a political obstacle to the project before it even can even off the ground.
Imagine for a moment that you live, as I do, in one of those rural communities that has managed itself well. Or imagine if you live in Greenwich or New Canaan and commute to Manhattan. Hartford is sort of an abstract concept to you. Maybe you know it’s the state capital; maybe you just think of it as one of Connecticut’s poorest and most poorly run cities.
Meanwhile, lawmakers are currently huddled in the Capitol deciding how much they want to soak you. Education Cost Sharing grants are being reconfigured to direct yet more money away from your town to cities like Hartford. The state wants you to foot the entire bill for your resident state trooper. Malloy wants to shift one third of the cost of teachers’ pension obligations — a staggering $400 million during the first year alone — off onto towns and cities, a move that is “tantamount to a $1 billion bill to property taxpayers across Connecticut … over the next two years,” said Joe DeLong, executive director of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities.
Then you hear that Malloy wants to direct a quarter of a billion dollars to an arena owned by a city whose finances are so perilous that it might soon require a state bailout anyway.
No, a large state bailout of the XL Center without private capital would exacerbate the current situation in which Malloy’s budget is already pitting towns against each other. It was a nice idea when it opened in 1975, but count me down for closing it more than 40 years later.
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