Hockey promoter and Hartford cheerleader Howard Baldwin helped unveil a $105 million plan to modernize and revitalized downtown Hartford’s XL Center last week, but in order to make it happen he needs the state to make a sizeable investment to be matched by private funds.
“There has to be public investment. It is not our building,” Baldwin said Monday in an interview with CTNewsJunkie. “The building belongs to the city and is managed by the state and is a regional asset.”
And while Baldwin hopes renovating the building will help return the National Hockey League to Hartford, he said the city and the state need to make this investment, regardless of the NHL.
“It’s an asset that has to be maintained and upgraded in order to keep the events that you have,” Baldwin said. “Then if you do a little bit more you can attract more events and at least get it NHL-ready if that opportunity presents itself.”
But don’t take Baldwin’s word for it. He said the Aetna commissioned an independent study from the Connecticut Center for Economic Analysis at the University of Connecticut, which says a refurbished XL Center would create as many as 1,500 new jobs per year, and economic activity would be boosted an average of $48.3 million to $61 million per year.
Fred Carstensen, the UConn economist who authored the report, said the improvements Baldwin wants to see at the XL Center are viable even without an NHL franchise. He said that is why the Aetna commissioned the report. He said the Aetna and leaders at other downtown Hartford companies know that in order to attract young professionals they have to give them something to do when they are not working.
“The numbers look good,” Carstensen said Monday. “The downside risk of not doing anything is very substantial and puts the city in real danger of losing major employers.”
But Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said Monday that the state’s not interested in Baldwin’s plan.
“Listen the XL Center needs to stand on its own. I can’t imagine a Hartford without an XL Center or its equivalent, but whether any particular proposal at this early date is the right one, clearly I’m not making that judgment,” he said Monday at an unrelated event.
Roy Occhiogrosso, Malloy’s senior communications adviser, said that the governor would like to see something productive happen with the XL Center to make it viable, but Baldwin’s plan requires the state to invest too much money.
He said the governor respects Mr. Baldwin and appreciates that he started the conversation by putting forth a proposal, but he just is not interested in making such a large investment at this time.
“We are in a different time. The governor’s economic development focus is on job creation in growth industries,” Occhiogrosso told Rick Green of the Hartford Courant last week.
Asked about the comments, Baldwin said “Roy ought to read the study,” which says the state would recover its investment and increase its revenues over a 20-year period. And he pointed out that despite Occhiogrosso’s comments, feedback about the plan has been good.
The report is expected to be available online later today, Carstensen said.
The state’s investment in the XL Center, just like its investment in Rentschler Field in East Hartford, would be considered a “soft investment,” but Carstensen says conservative economic modeling shows that it would pay off. He said the risk of doing nothing and allowing it to go the way of the New Haven Coliseum should not be an option.
“You have to pay attention to, and support quality of life projects people have access to, or you end up losing a lot of jobs,” Carstensen said.
As for lobbying the state to support the project to nudge along corporate investment, “I’m not going to lobby,” Baldwin said. “This is for them, way more than it is for me.”
“I came back because I believe in the marketplace,” Baldwin continued. “This sounds weird, but I gave birth to the franchise. I watched it leave and I think that people here deserve a good thing. If other people don’t think so, fine.”
“We’ve put the whole thing out there, which is more than anyone else has done,” Baldwin said. “We’ve gotten a very positive response from the city and frankly I think that the state is very receptive and there has to be some kind of city, state, and private sector conglomerate as such that makes this happen.”
Ignoring the naysayers, Baldwin has already successfully rebranded the Wolf Pack into the CT Whale and has already seen the AHL franchise grow.
This year already the growth of the Whale is the highest in the AHL, he said.
“We’ve gone way out on a limb, you should know, and invested a lot of money into rebranding the team and trying to make the hockey market grow,” Baldwin said.
He said he thinks the NHL will attract bigger crowds.
But he admitted that a smaller market has a heavier burden on it because the prices go up, so you as a consumer can’t afford the 20 games in the NHL, but you may be able to afford five or six games. In this market the income per capita is good and it’s a broad market with a vast suburb.
“We made sure everybody could come,” Baldwin said. “Even rich people can’t come to all 40 games. I don’t go to 40 games. You try to structure your business plan so everybody can come.”
When Baldwin ran the Whalers in the 1970s and 1980s he said their gate was the third highest in the league in the smallest building. He said they were able to do that because they scaled the house reasonably.
He said the refurbished XL Center would also help attract young professionals to the area. Baldwin, who lived in Los Angeles for 20 years and returned to Hartford just two years ago, said it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why downtown Hartford isn’t the bustling metropolis it once was.
“You don’t have enough to do down here. Once you have things to do, you watch this city come alive,” Baldwin said.
He said he heard the same complaints from naysayers when he moved the Whalers there in the 1970s. He said that before the Hartford Civic Center, there was no reason for people to come into the city.
“The heartbeat of that city is right across the street at that Civic Center,” Baldwin said. “That’s where it’s at.”
The $105 million renovation plan Baldwin unveiled last week includes overhauling the XL Center’s arena seating and luxury-level seating as well as its mechanical systems and concessions.
In concert with the renovation, the Trumbull streetscape adjacent to the arena would be transformed into a walkable dining and entertainment “mecca.” That would involve the pursuit of a Hard Rock Café or Planet Hollywood, and the opening of an IMAX theater and food court. Also sought for the dining options would be a new Geno Auriemma’s “Fast Break” pub and restaurant.
Oz Griebel, president of the MetroHartford Alliance, said there are still a whole host of questions that will need to be answered about the plan before private or public investments can be made.
“I think what Howard and company have done is increased the sense of urgency,” Griebel said Monday. But before the private or public sector will consider making an investment there needs to be discussions about ownership, equity of investments, and the number and type of attractions the XL Center hopes to attract or host.
The lease on the building, currently held by Northland Development, expires in 2013.