Think about it — a beautiful night in June, sitting in the stands behind home plate, looking out at the downtown Hartford skyline. How better to put an exclamation point on the Hartford renaissance!
I love this dream. I travel frequently to Indianapolis in my volunteer capacity at the NCAA, and I love having Victory Park, home of the Indianapolis Indians, Triple A franchise of the Pittsburgh Pirates, right next to the hotel where I usually stay. Many is the night I have spent before or after a business meeting, sitting in the stands there, relaxing while watching a game.
That — or some version of it — must be Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra's dream, and I don't blame him for dreaming big. Hartford so badly needs that exclamation point.
Even so, there are so many unanswered questions. If I were a member of the Hartford city council, here's what I would ask before voting for a $60 million bonding package to construct a 9,000-seat ballpark for the now New Britain Rock Cats.
With all the constraints on Hartford's economy, can we really afford this? Think of the cuts in police recruits in a city that must provide greater safety for its citizens, think of the unfunded iQuilt project, which promises green space and a walking experience in the heart of Hartford. Think of the spectacular arts scene in Hartford — the Hartford Stage, the Bushnell, the Hartford Symphony, the Wadsworth Atheneum — all struggling every year to keep Hartford's rich culture alive. Think of the needs of the Hartford's neighborhoods and the potholes in Hartford's streets.
How well thought out is this project? I know Hartford's planners have struggled to provide a spark for the reconstruction of NoDo (north downtown), cruelly separated from the dough of downtown by the cavern of I-84. But does this park really fit there? Where is the convenient and inexpensive parking, so much a part of the family fun that is minor league baseball in the early 21st century? How about a convenient automobile connection from either of the interstates that surround the proposed site? What about public transportation? We've planned an expensive busway from New Britain to Hartford, but it drops people off across town from the ballpark.
As Smith College economist Andrew Zimbalist has pointed out, municipally funded ballparks do not spark much economic development. Families come to the ballpark to enjoy the relatively inexpensive fun of hot dogs, nachos and fireworks. Perhaps a few new restaurants or bars will spring up around the ballpark, but I don't see much other development.
But I do see fun and more people in downtown Hartford as something Hartford needs. We need to have more fun and more attractions. I love the Connecticut Science Center, another public-private partnership that has brought families downtown. A beautiful ballpark could be a marvelous bookend to that.
So this is the dilemma as I see it: Can Hartford dream big when so many of the essentials to a truly vibrant city life are still missing? Is the proposed ballpark a catalyst or another failed urban renewal project?
And I am troubled by the lack of communication with the state, which through various governors' visions (most recently Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's) has provided so much help to Connecticut's capital city. Wouldn't the mayor have wanted a joint announcement with a state government that has done so much?
I have always enjoyed watching the Rock Cats in New Britain and have spent many enjoyable evenings watching games, talking baseball with Bill Dowling or providing color commentary on the radio with Jeff Dooley. It's a nice Double A ballpark in a town that deserves the break the Cats provide, but we have to honest: If you were to decide from scratch where in central Connecticut to put an Eastern League team, I think it would be in the capital's downtown rather than the fairly obscure south end of the Hardware City.
We have to be honest: This isn't yet a well-planned idea. But with some hard, critical thinking it could be, if we can truly afford it. Hartford needs the spark, it needs the excitement, and this dream of Pedro's may well be it. But we have to think our way through this by asking the hard questions. We can't afford another swing and miss.
Walter Harrison, president of the University of Hartford, is an American studies scholar focused on sports in American life and the past and future of America's cities. He is currently chairman of the NCAA Committee on Academic Performance, was a member of the NCAA Division I board of directors from 2002 to 2007 and chairman of the NCAA executive committee from 2005 to 2007.