This week the state Bond Commission voted to borrow $40 million for upgrades to the XL Center, in the hopes of tricking some poor sap into buying it. Good luck with that.
The newly passed state budget authorized the cost of the upgrades and the purchase of the nearby atrium and retail space, all in an effort to make the building attractive enough to investors to sell it by 2019. I haven’t found any evidence of private investors going around buying up aging arenas, but maybe the people who came up with the budget know something I don’t. Who can say?
As it stands, though, the building doesn’t seem like much of a deal. In the 1980s, when the arena was young and named the Hartford Civic Center, it seemed like the future. It was the biggest arena in New England, and it had great sight lines, skyboxes, and even a mall attached! What’s more 1980s than that? It was major league enough that it had hosted both an NHL tenant in the Whalers and a yearly Boston Celtics home game. Better, the region was wealthy and booming enough to support both the arena and the belief that we, too, were major league.
But stadiums, cities, and fate have moved on. Major league arenas like Boston’s TD Garden are cavernous entertainment palaces that cater to wealthy fans, while the idea of the downtown shopping mall has blessedly vanished in favor of lively streets lined with shops. The Whalers are long departed, and all the glitz and marble of the 1980s are nothing but a distant memory.
In short, the world changed. The XL Center did not.
It hasn’t aged gracefully. The place feels old, cramped, and neglected. Not even some basic renovations a few years back managed to spruce it up much.
And … it’s haunted. I can’t sit in the building without thinking about the past. When I walk the concourse I’m walking through my own memory, and when I look up at the banners in the rafters I think about everything we’ve lost. Not just a sports team, no. But that city of the 1980s, the booming Connecticut my parents moved to, those are all gone.
Now the state wants to unload it, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s bleeding money, but it’s too expensive to bring up to modern standards or tear it down and replace it. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who is dubious about anyone actually buying the old barn, said that replacing the building would cost about $1.5 billion.
I’m not sure that’s true. Not even Detroit’s sparkling new Little Caesar’s Arena cost that much, and we don’t exactly rate that level of opulence. Still, building new NHL-size arenas is not cheap, and upgrading old ones isn’t much better.
So why should we? If we can’t just let the XL Center deteriorate, and if both building a new one or paying for real renovations are out of the question, then … what?
There’s a belief that any “real” city has to have an arena, and that Hartford’s is necessary to ongoing revitalization efforts. Gov. Malloy thinks the XL Center is important enough to have wanted to spend $250 million on it before revenue projections collapsed. He even said that if the place were to shut its doors, it would “disturb the economy greatly.”
Again, I’m not so sure about that. The place is busy whenever the Huskies play — though not even they draw the crowds they once did. Concerts and shows happen elsewhere. The minor-league Wolf Pack are fun, but fans don’t show up for them much. They’re dead last in the American Hockey League in attendance, behind such metropolises as Binghamton and Utica. New Haven got rid of its arena, and hasn’t missed it much.
But this just leads us all back to the same question we’ve been asking since 1997: do we chase the past? Do we indulge those old ghosts? Or do we shake them all off and try something new?
I want to see this whole region be less haunted. Downtown Hartford isn’t what it was. The old Bank of America skyscraper is full of apartments, the Hartford Times building is a UConn campus instead of a ruin. The suburbs, too, are slowly undergoing a radical change in both population and purpose.
So let’s change. Let’s blow the old place up and build something else. Maybe a smaller arena more suited to who we really are, or even no arena at all.
There’s life after the 1980s. We don’t need that dream anymore.
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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