City Emails Shed Light On Early Rock Cats Talks

Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra announces the city's plan to build a $60 million stadium for the New Britain Rock Cats in Hartford. A rendering of the proposed stadium is at left. (Cloe Poisson)

HARTFORD — On a late November afternoon in 2012, city officials met with executives from the New Britain Rock Cats and put in motion a secret 18-month negotiation to bring the minor league club to Hartford.

The meeting at Salute on Trumbull Street included Mayor Pedro Segarra, Development Director Thomas Deller and former Chief of Staff Jared Kupiec for the city. The Rock Cats contingent included owner Josh Solomon; his father, Art Solomon, owner of fellow Eastern League member New Hampshire Fisher Cats; and John Willi, another Rock Cats executive.

"Thank you so much for agreeing to sit with the Mayor, Thom and I for lunch a week ago," Kupiec wrote to the Solomons and Willi in a Dec. 10, 2012 email. "We are extremely pleased at your interest in re-locating to Hartford and look forward to assisting in any and all ways possible."

The lunch and follow-up note are documented in two of the more than 300 city emails about the deal obtained by The Courant through a Freedom of Information Act request. The emails provide a time line for the transaction, including the dates of key meetings and the identities of participants. They also outline some economic projections, but provide few details of the negotiations.

Weeks before Kupiec sent his December email, city officials had begun to entertain the notion of a minor league stadium in Hartford. In corresponding with Deller that November, Kupiec said a parcel of city land just north of downtown "will be packaged in about a year after a comprehensive market study is completed ... Potential also exists for minor league baseball (!) and maybe a new City Hall."

The city announced last week that it would build a $60 million stadium to lure the Rock Cats, the Double A Eastern League affiliate of the Minnesota Twins, to Hartford. The 220,000-square-foot stadium would seat more than 9,000 spectators. Construction is expected to be completed on April 1, 2016, and a grand opening is planned for April 7, 2016.

In December 2012, the Rock Cats were just beginning to lay out their plans.

"Based on recent stadium projects," Willi wrote in an email to Deller, "approximately eight acres is needed for the ball park construction when developing a new Double-A level park. This does not include parking."

The city announced last week that it would build the stadium on 5 acres near Main and Trumbull streets. City correspondence with Rock Cats officials between 2012 and 2014 also provides a glimpse of how both sides worked to keep the negotiations secret.

Kupiec urged one employee of the MetroHartford Alliance to remove the Rock Cats negotiations from the agenda of a February 2013 meeting between Segarra, MetroHartford Alliance CEO R. Nelson "Oz" Griebel, MetroHartford employee Julio Concepcion and Kupiec.

"We just can't talk about it publicly because they haven't notified New Britain they are leaving," Kupiec said in an email to Concepcion. "I want to leave some space, out of respect."

The next time Hartford officials met with Josh Solomon, his father and Willi was March 2013, around a table at Vivo in the Hartford Marriott Downtown. The meeting, Kupiec said, was to update where everyone stood and where "we intend to go over the next few months."

Weeks before the meeting, the deal appeared, at least to Kupiec, to be closed. In an email Feb. 5 to colleagues about Amazon's newly public search for a distribution site in central Hartford, where he reports to have been deputized by the mayor to "throw the kitchen sink" at the online retailer, Kupiec concluded, "So, like with minor league baseball, let's go quickly get ourselves an international company."

The mayor next met with a Solomon family member in June 2013, but it was Art Solomon who set up this meeting after a phone conversation with Kupiec, according to the emails. It is unclear whether Josh Solomon and other Rock Cats executives were in on the meeting. Before the gathering, though, Art Solomon was told that he would have some time to "chat with the mayor in private either before or after."

Asked if Art Solomon's involvement in the Rock Cats negotiations with the city of Hartford violated any league rules, Steve Densa, executive director of communications for Minor League Baseball, said Wednesday: "Almost all clubs have consultants involved in some fashion or another when looking at stadium development. Sometimes those consultants are associated with other clubs because they have the experience of working through the issues that are regularly encountered on these projects.

"Based solely on the information you shared … it appears that in this situation some of this assistance was provided by a fellow owner who also happened to be related."

In the spring and summer of 2013, city officials sought a legal firm to assist in the deal and relocation of the team, and later settled on Updike Kelly & Spellacy, a Connecticut law firm with offices in Hartford, Middletown and New Haven. Updike was chosen by the city to review an outline of the deal first proposed by the legal representative of the Rock Cats, Willinger, Willinger & Bucci, for a $32 million minor league stadium, nearly $30 million less than the current proposal.

In August, Deller and his team attended a Rock Cats game. Josh Solomon emailed him the next day, "I hope your team had a good time at the ball game!!" he said.

Deller responded: "We did it was a great night. Unfortunately we lost."

Emails sent to and from city hall are quiet on the deal again until March 2014, when Deller wrote to the mayor.

"We are meeting today with the Solomons to finalize a preliminary deal. We are now in a run mode and I need to figure out how you want us to brief the council and I need you to give some serious time to make sure you are on board with what we have structured," Deller said. "The goal is to submit a deal to council for the last meeting in April. Looking for your guidance."

A draft of a city council resolution was drawn up in May, along with a letter to council President Shawn Wooden from the mayor recommending its passage.

"The development of the ballpark would result in a modern Minor League Baseball facility in Downtown North which will serve to revitalize the area, spur additional economic development and generate revenues for the City," the letter said.

A Rock Cats "Fact Sheet" sent by Maribel La Luz, Segarra's spokeswoman, on June 3, 2014, to employees in the development services department said that the city expected the ball park to bring in an additional $2 million in tax revenue annually, and about $8 million in "annual hotel, food and beverage spending."

The last private meeting between city officials and Rock Cats executives was in late May, according to the emails. Weeks later, the city announced the deal.