This is a story that, like many American stories that go off the rails, goes back to Donald Trump. Back in the early 1990s, Trump bought a piece of land with an old factory sitting on it sandwiched between I-95 and the railroad tracks just south of downtown Bridgeport. Trump intended to build some sort of entertainment complex there, but like so many of Trump’s plans this one came to nothing. He then decided he was sick of paying the taxes on it and deeded it to the city for $1.
This was right around the time when the idea of plopping a ballpark in the middle of a city leading to revitalization took off. Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim dreamed up the idea of a baseball stadium and arena at what was eventually named “Harbor Yard,” even though the site didn’t technically border the water. The newly-formed independent Atlantic League placed a franchise, the Bluefish, in Bridgeport in 1997, and despite declining attendance they’ve played there ever since.
Until now, that is.
This week Joe Ganim, back in office as mayor after a brief seven-year hiatus in federal prison for a corruption conviction, announced that the Ballpark at Harbor Yard would be kicking its tenants out so it could be converted into what concert promoter Jim Koplik called a “boutique amphitheater” for outdoor concerts. Ganim, without any trace of irony, praised the amphitheater plan as the “next step in revitalizing our city,” even though Trump’s entertainment complex and then the ballpark were supposed to do just that two decades ago.
This is a head-scratcher. It’s hard to see how two dozen or so concerts beats 70 baseball games per summer, even if the Bluefish continue to draw poorly. There’s also the question of who would actually play there. Webster Bank Arena, which is right next door, doesn’t draw a lot of concerts as it is. Worse, Bridgeport is in New York City’s orbit, as well as being perilously close to the Mohegan Sun Arena, the Oakdale Theater, and both the XL Center and the XFINITY Theater in Hartford.
But let’s put aside the fact that this is a dumb idea — though it certainly is. What we’re seeing here is another example of the type of urban development thinking that favors big-ticket, flashy downtown developments over smaller-scale, incremental neighborhood improvements.
Our cities have been victims of this kind of thinking for decades. Bridgeport has bet its future first on Harbor Yard, then on a development of dubious worth named “Steelpointe Harbor” at nearby Steel Point that has so far managed to cough up a Bass Pro Shop and not much else.
Hartford has suffered more than any Connecticut city from this type of redevelopment. From Constitution Plaza to paving over the Park River, from Adriean’s Landing to the Yard Goats, Hartford has specialized in throwing money at big, showy buildings and projects instead of working to improve the lives of the people who actually live in the city.
Sure, a baseball stadium in Hartford benefits the region, but the building-by-building renovation and repurposing of a block on Capitol Avenue, for instance, will end up making much more of a difference for the city itself.
That’s why this amphitheater deal feels so pointless to me. It’s the sort of thing a guy running a quixotic campaign for governor might do to make it look like he’s improving his city instead of just whining about not being able to access public funding due to the whole “felon” thing, and zipping around the state campaigning in a city-funded car.
We have a good idea of what cities really need, because residents tell us. Cities need better public transportation, better services, more affordable housing, cleaner streets, more streetlights, grocery stores, better schools, fewer highways cutting through neighborhoods, and jobs. Amphitheaters stuck between a loud, looming highway bridge and the most heavily-traveled rail line in the country aren’t on the list.
Thankfully, Bridgeport can still change its mind. The Bridgeport Sound Tigers, a hockey team that operates the arena next door, is arguing that the amphitheater project will violate a fairly clear non-compete clause in their contract with the city. The city council, which ultimately has to approve the deal, has a lot to think about.
In the meantime, if Bridgeport is serious about urban renewal, maybe they should investigate tearing down that hideous highway bridge that casts a shadow over downtown, and reroute I-95 somewhere else. It would be, if nothing else, a good start.
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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