Sentiment In Hartford Stadium Neighborhood: Play Ball!

Hartford would appear to be divided by the Rock Cats stadium plan if you follow the political winds at city hall.

But along Albany Avenue and Main Street, where the ballpark would greatly affect residents of the Clay Arsenal and Upper Albany neighborhoods, that old saw about development has a new twist.

Only in my back yard.

The feeling was overwhelming in barber shops, arts centers, gyms, Jamaican restaurants and street corners as I walked two days along the stretch of Route 44 leading to the stadium site on the edge of downtown. Play ball!

"If you were to ask me where to put that baseball stadium, I'd say right in the middle of Keney Park, because it's closer," said Shawn Simpson, a 23-year-old Hartford High School graduate and Dodgers fan who's looking for a job. "It's a great idea because we don't have anything really representing."

Simpson is hardly alone. As I talked with people in North Hartford on my walk across Connecticut, several said the closer the better. They looked forward to something happening at Mayor Pedro Segarra's favored "Downtown North" site, now a surface parking lot, even if they had better locations in mind.

They want the stadium for the baseball. They want it for the jobs. They want it for the economic activity, though that might not extend down the avenue.

Mostly, they want it for the same reason it would help the whole capital region if it were to happen -- to build on the energy in a place where tens of thousands of people live and work.

"I'm not really a baseball fan," said Tiana Walton, a 26-year-old home health aide. "They just need more things for the youth to do."

"I'd like to see it because I'm an avid baseball fan," said Joan Facey, who owns a restaurant, a barber shop and the building where both are located along Albany Avenue.

Like any die-hard adult Yankee fan, Facey, who is from Jamaica, recalls exactly where she was when the team blew the lead in game 4 against the Red Sox ten years ago. She was a nurse in the home of an elderly client, watching the game with him. With the pennant seemingly in hand, the client went to sleep and she drove home -- only to receive a call from her son, telling her to pull over for the grim news.

That son, Jermaine Johnson, believes a minor league stadium in walking distance of a densely populated neighborhood makes great sense. "On a Saturday afternoon I'd bring my son to watch a game but I wouldn't drive to New Britain," he said.

If any people oppose the stadium altogether, I didn't meet them. That said, it's true that the stadium plan has exposed the age-old rift between downtown and the neighborhoods.

"You've got everything downtown. Everything is downtown, downtown, downtown," said Everton C. Osbourne, owner of Scotts II Mini Mart at the corner of Baltimore Street. "Keney golf course is shut down. We used to have go-carts, we used to have horseback riding. We used to have a zoo in the '70s."

I asked him whether he was excited about the $28 million plan for streetscape improvements along the avenue. "Plans? We need action. And our roads are atrocious," he said.

That raises the sticky issue of difficult choices. Although people along Albany Avenue like the idea of minor league baseball, a few are concerned about the $60 million price tag. Weeks after his early-June announcement of a stadium to be financed largely by city bonds, Segarra backed off, saying he's now committed to finding private investment.

"Private investment" is a bit of a misnomer, since the whole Downtown North development area, not the stadium itself, is what will attract private money.

As I said in a column last month, if Hartford builds a stadium the state will have to pay – directly or indirectly – since the city is basically a ward of the state.

"In my circles, they're hopeful it can work without a significant burden on the taxpayers," said Gordon Scott, head of a local merchants association, whose family owns Scotts' Jamaican Bakery with three retail locations and a baking plant.

"Sports in my view is like a catalyst for great things," Scott said.

Facey, in her restaurant, said, "We want to see Hartford back in the limelight. If we're busy we can pay the taxes."

Inside the Bigga League Barber Shop, the topic isn't a hot one, barber Wes Black said. But when it does come up, the stadium has broad support. "It doesn't matter where the money comes from, it's going to be good for Hartford," he said.

And at the Artists Collective, 13-year-old Lenny Cole said he attended a downtown forum on the baseball plan and heard all the talk about the need for a supermarket rather than a stadium.

"There's already enough supermarkets," he said. Sounding like an economic development professional, he said of the baseball stadium, "It will add to the downtown experience." And anyway, Cole added, "They're not doing anything with those parking lots."

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