Many years ago, the big news in Hartford was a guy named Robert Kraft, who wanted Connecticut to build him a $375 million football stadium downtown. He'd leave Massachusetts for a free stadium and a no-tax deal on a new hotel, bringing his NFL Patriots team with him. In exchange, he'd keep 90 percent of the ticket, parking and concession fees. Hartford would get some seasonal stadium jobs and a dose of glitz.
We all know how that ended.
Now, we are faced with a smaller but similar offer from the Double A Eastern League Rock Cats baseball team to move from New Britain to Hartford. We've all gotten older and wiser since Bob Kraft stole our innocence, and I've moved from cautious optimism to outright skepticism regarding this latest $60 million proposed sports stadium for Hartford. And I'll tell you why.
It's not good for the people of Hartford, and it's not good for the region. This deal only benefits a handful of people, and they've already got it made.
Let's begin with the June 4 announcement. It was a "done deal," the public was told, after 18 months of closed-door city hall negotiations with the co-owner of a billion-dollar real estate investment firm. A $60 million stadium would be paid for by Hartford residents and businesses while the Rock Cats would give the city $500,000 a year in rent. Meanwhile, Hartford taxpayers — who are already paying the highest property tax rate in Connecticut, in excess of 74 mills — must take on more than $4 million a year in additional debt.
At some other time, in some other place, this might be a defensible deal. But for a Hartford administration that just last month had to propose selling its parking garages in order to close a multimillion-dollar budget deficit, it raises more concerns than it does provide confidence.
The history and financials of sports stadiums are provably and consistently not good. A team and a stadium by themselves simply don't increase employment or local incomes, despite what baseball team owners claim. (Does anyone believe that 10 percent of Rock Cats fans would stay overnight in a Hartford hotel? That's one of the selling points claimed by the team's marketing consultant.)
Meanwhile, what are we losing? Every day brings some new revelation, and some serious backpedaling by city officials about what they said and what they really meant.
Two weeks after the Rock Cats deal was announced on the steps of city hall, we discover that the site of the proposed stadium was (until recently) the planned home of a 50,000-square-foot grocery store, most likely a Shop Rite. The supermarket would have been part of an $80 million mixed-use development, including apartments.
Anybody who's anybody can tell you that the one thing Hartford really needs is a large grocery store. No more traveling some distance to do your shopping, or paying higher prices for a limited selection at some smaller stores. I'm talking about full-time, 365-days-a-year jobs at a well-established retail chain selling goods that the Hartford public truly needs and deserves. Throw in some nice apartments and other street-level retail and you've got yourself a good thing.
But no. Instead we find out that Hartford city hall officials will get free skybox seats, free tickets to games and free parking for all Rock Cats events. And what do the people of Hartford get? Part-time seasonal jobs and higher tax bills.
I know the attraction of a new sports stadium. It sings to you, and it's easy to get caught up in the "what ifs" and the "maybes." But you've got to put that aside and weigh the facts, weigh them with your thumb on the scale on the side of the people. And when I do that, there are better places to spend our money.
Eric Coleman of Bloomfield is state senator from the 2nd Senate District and is in the Aug. 12 primary for the Democratic nomination for that seat.