Last week Hartford officials held a ceremonial groundbreaking for the new minor league home of the New Britain Rock Cats, who will move to the city in time for the start of the 2016 season.
Of course, the actual “ground” was frozen and buried beneath a ton of snow, so before the ceremony the workers had to dig up some dirt for officials to stick shovels into. So went the latest chapter in the rushed, improvised, and strangely successful story of how baseball is coming back to the capital city.
I am astonished that they broke ground at all. This seems like the kind of project that would be held up for literally years thanks to committees and public forums and lack of money until it died a quiet, disappointing death a decade after the Rock Cats had moved to Poughkeepsie. That’s the way things tend to go around here, especially in Hartford.
But Hartford’s officials found a novel and very Connecticut way around all the furor: they cheated. Everything around this stadium has felt either fishy or very rushed. Plans for funding have shifted around very fast. A real local coalition against the stadium never had much of a chance to get organized. And, notoriously, the city council granted final approval for the stadium authority last month during a furious snowstorm when police had told everyone to stay off the roads. Public attendance, not surprisingly, was low.
And yet, here we are. It’s happening. In a little over a year ,minor leaguers for the Colorado Rockies will be playing ball just north of I-84. The whole thing took only about eight months.
Compare this to the slow, deliberative and incremental change happening around the other big sports venue in the city, the XL Center née Hartford Civic Center.
Consultants unveiled two plans for the 40-year-old arena to the Capital Region Development Authority last week. One plan would renovate and expand the XL Center for about $250 million, the other would demolish and rebuild the arena for $500 million. Both plans would result in modern facilities with the sorts of amenities major league teams might expect, and both would, according to the consultants, have exactly the same economic impact. And, they added, both would meet the needs of that NHL team Hartford Whalers die-hards keep hoping will turn up someday.
Until then, of course, the main tenant at the arena would be Hartford’s minor league hockey team, the Wolf Pack. I love AHL hockey, don’t get me wrong, but there’s something a little sad about minor league hockey happening in an old NHL building that’s only ever about a third to half full. A new arena might increase attendance in the short term, but beyond that there’s no guarantee.
That’s the problem with the XL Center plans: They’re all about what could be someday instead of what actually is. As completely weird and fishy as the baseball stadium plans were, they were in reaction to an actual deal on the table.
And let’s be honest: That NHL team won’t happen. Hartford’s not Winnipeg, Quebec City, or even Vegas. The NHL has no intention of ever coming back here.
The Wolf Pack need a home that suits them. What if we built a minor league hockey arena that we could actually fill instead of an NHL-level arena that we can’t? We could build a 10,000-seat arena with great sight lines, where no seat is too far away, and where seats don’t cost an arm and a leg because the building is cheaper to run. That way the city and the region could take advantage of the minor league team we have instead of constantly hoping they’ll go away and be replaced by something better.
The baseball stadium, on the other hand, will be just the right size at 6,000 seats (around 9,000 with picnic and standing room areas). Hartford would be one of the larger AA baseball markets, and the stadium ought to be easy to fill on game nights. New Britain Stadium, which is much more out of the way, regularly packs its similarly-sized park.
So what we have here is one stadium that was done the wrong way but is probably the right thing for the city, and another done the right way that will likely turn out to not be what we need.
That stadium north of downtown is happening. A new XL Center of some kind will happen someday, too. This is a good minor league sports town. Let’s embrace it instead of running away.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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