9:27 PM EST, February 3, 2013
— The lack of substantive public debate on the future of two of the state's most public structures worries me. In fact, it bothers the hell out of me.
There I said it.
After two months of entertaining secret bids, the Capital Region Development Authority is scheduled to make a final decision this week on who will operate the XL Center and Rentschler Field.
AEG Management CT? Capital Region Sports and Entertainment Group [the Bushnell/LAZ group]? Or Global Spectrum? Unless you're on the CRDA Board of Directors or in the governor's office, you have no idea which of the three will land the bid.
I know I don't, although two sources did tell me Sunday that they "believe" the Bushnell Group is out of the running.
The CRDA has invoked a clause in the state's right-to-know laws that permits it to keep the bids under wraps. On one level, it is understandable. Any governmental body soliciting bids on a major project should have a degree of wiggle room to keep the competition clean.
My problem is that it has been unclear exactly how the CRDA is prioritizing its decision, and those priorities should have been argued publicly. Is the entity that makes the most enticing bid on retrofitting the XL Center the winner? Or is it the one that can guarantee the most concerts? Or is it the one that can guarantee the AHL stays in town? Or is it something else? When the CRDA eventually does talk, it undoubtedly will say all of them were important. And once it's over, well, there's no way of proving or disproving any of it.
Look, this CRDA decision could end up being as vital as helping UConn getting into the ACC, or it could be a decision that is little more than who gets to turn the lights on and off and prove it can kiss the Rangers' rear end enough to keep their AHL affiliation in Hartford.
One could mean everything. The other means much less.
From what I read when it was formed last year, the CRDA is supposed to be about openness that its predecessor, the Capital City Economic Development Authority, lacked. And, hey, maybe the CRDA is more open than a drunk at happy hour. That's not what I'm seeing on the XL Center and Rentschler Field.
The CRDA solicited concrete plans from the bidders on a number of issues, but we have no way of knowing what issue is No. 1, No. 2, etc. with it. In an email response to a question about the minor league affiliate, Michael Freimuth, CRDA executive director, said Sunday the ability to secure an AHL team is a "critical" component of the bids because its carries 38 to 40 annual events. Most critical? Don't know.
If anybody looks at the big picture, they know that the XL Center needs serious refurbishing. I will argue long and loud that the No. 1 priority must be improving the building to serve the state's long-term entertainment good and to help ensure the future of UConn athletics.
I also was told Sunday that UConn is essentially out of the fight to manage the Rent. Look everybody knows football drives college sports. And if UConn is going to make it big in football, it stands to reason the stadium is going to eventually need another 15,000 seats. Is anybody arguing about that in the bidding process? Don't know.
It seems like everybody in Connecticut is arguing about what should be done about conference realignment. Well, improving facilities is a tangible step. An XL Center with mid-level luxury boxes, food courts, with entertainment and media facilities surrounding the arena, would be a great thing to sell to the ACC and Big Ten.
If the Bushnell is out, is it because its lacks the overarching power to bring in major concerts and other events like AEG and Global Spectrum? Of is there distrust in the parking money of the local LAZ group? That group certainly seemed interested in making a private pitch for the XL Center, perhaps to retrofit, or who knows, even build a new one. If they're out, does that mean XL Center improvements would be modest? Or does it mean that it'll be up to the public? Too much public money obviously is a ticket to nowhere.
The Internet was buzzing with rumors after a report that Gov. Dannel Malloy was talking to investors seeking to get an NHL franchise. Well, a month later, no group has publicly introduced itself . And short of that, they're all ghosts to me. If a group is serious, why pour hundreds of millions into the XL Center, when a new arena, maybe downstate, would be needed for a major league franchise? Wouldn't that be vital in the CRDA decision?
Look, it would be nice for the Rangers to keep their farm team in Hartford, but, good grief, that can't be the No. 1 priority. AEG got by this season by paying the Rangers half the affiliation fee the Baldwins did last season, but if the Rangers feel they have to leave, God bless them, let them go to Glens Falls. Or since Bridgeport is so hot to have them and if the Rangers are dying to leave, swap them for the Islanders' affiliation. It's not that big of a deal. If a city like Hartford wants an AHL affiliation bad enough, it will get one. And if the building is improved, it will become all the more attractive a destination.
In Malloy's budget proposal is a bold plan to spend $2 billion over 10 years for a huge expansion of UConn, one projected to increase enrollment by 30 percent. This could pave the way for the school's entry into the AAU, a virtual must for entry into the Big Ten and an attractive vehicle for the ACC. I'm sitting inside Gampel Pavilion right now, thinking about this, looking up at the domed roof. There are tears and tatters. This place needs improvement, too. I'd argue that this is the place the rink for UConn's entry into the Hockey East should go. Maybe the answer is to shut down Gampel for a few years and expand it for hoops and hockey. UConn pays a whopping $50,000 grand to play basketball every game at the XL Center. Maybe a bigger, spiffier place on campus would render the XL Center moot to UConn.
Look, I know as soon as I write this I will hear how stupid I am or how impatient I am, that it'll all come out after the decision. I also know after nearly 30 years of covering the operation of the XL Center, I have grown weary of being misled and listening to the happy horsespit. Do you know how many promises over the decades I have heard from Peter Karmanos? Larry Gottesdiener? Howard Baldwin? And any assortment of government and building officials about how great it was all going to be?
Yet we are left with a badly aging indoor facility. We have no NHL team. We have the state's flagship university with an athletic program that is stuck in a disintegrating conference. Each time it's going to be great. Each time something falls apart, it's somebody else's fault.
When the CDA picked Gottesdiener and AEG in 2007, I supported the decision. I said Larry the Builder had the money, the energy, the bricks and the mortar to revitalize the downtown area. Well, he talked big, swung and missed at the NHL and left looking small and with buildings in foreclosure. Plenty of folks scream at me now that CDA wanted Larry all along …
So here we are all over again. I'm not saying that the CRDA board won't do a stellar job. I'm saying that they're defining the parameters behind closed doors when those parameters should have been defined publicly, and with the bidders telling us much more than they were permitted about what they would do. Public buildings. Public trust. The public doesn't know squat yet. This I do know. Come later this week, it'll be all seashells and balloons.
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