Trying To Figure Out Who Will Manage XL Center

As a sports story, this isn't as sexy as Howard Baldwin's loud, failed notion that if you give him a remodeled XL Center, he'll bring you the NHL. Nor is it nearly as blah as management behemoths bidding against each other for the right to turn the lights on and off at the state's largest sporting arena.

When the Hartford Business Journal first reported that five companies had submitted letters of interest to the Capital Region Development Authority to take over management of the XL Center and Rentschler Field in 2013, two matters jumped out.

One was that the CRDA request for proposals asked potential bidders to submit plans for renovation and potential privatization of the XL Center. The second were the names of the half-dozen area businessmen, including parking baron Alan Lazowski, who have joined forces with Bushnell Management Services for their bid.

Maybe the big answers will come in the short term. Maybe they'll come in the long term. Either way, clearly, everything is now in play.

At this point, you need an MBA from the Wharton School just to figure out how the XL Center and Rentschler are run. The city of Hartford owns the arena, leases it to Connecticut Innovations, a new quasi-public state agency, which then leases it to AEG Management CT. AEG also ran the state-owned Rent until the state reopened the bidding process and turned management over to The Bushnell in 2011.

The decision to have one company manage both venues — to maximize events and profits — is not only wise, it is necessary. Yet it's only the start.

The deadline for the RFP is Dec. 17, and there is going to be a fairly entertaining battle until the CRDA makes its final decision in January. You not only have AEG and Bushnell. There's Global Spectrum, which operates the MassMutual Center in Springfield; Harbor Yard Sports & Entertainment Group, which manages Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport; and SMG.

Folks, you'd better be hearing and reading about financial helmets crashing and managerial sticks being raised over the Rent and XL Center. If you don't, it'll mean too much of this process for control of public venues is going on behind closed doors. It'll mean that we're not doing a good enough job of presenting all the possibilities for the state's two premier sports venues.

The XL Center, pushing 40, needs to be renovated. And that's what makes the Bushnell's joint bid with a group called the Capital Region Sports and Entertainment Group so fascinating. Bob Crawford, the former Whalers player who briefly served in 2010 as president of Baldwin's Whalers Sports & Entertainment, is on the list. So is former UConn interim athletic director Paul Pendergast, whose contract was not renewed at Storrs and has become chief development officer for Back9Network and vice president of institutional advancement for the Connecticut Public Broadcasting Network.

Those are names familiar to sports fans. Yet it's the other men, Lazowski of LAZ Parking; James Carter, Carter Realty owner and formerly of the Phoenix; Eric Zachs, managing partner at Bantry Bay Ventures; and Peter Stevens, president of JCJ Architecture, who bring the financial and infrastructural clout.

"These are Hartford guys," Crawford said. "If there's one common theme from all the guys in the room, it's they want to see Hartford succeed, and they're willing to put their efforts and finances behind it. They want to revitalize downtown. They have businesses downtown. They want to see activity."

"This is a diverse group. Everybody has their specialty. I'm a very, very small part. They're all UConn guys, big UConn boosters. I'm probably the newest guy and I'll be here 30 years next October."

LAZ has long been rumored to have some interest in buying the XL Center. Once upon a time, it was a quaint area parking company. Now, LAZ is a major national concern. Paul Marte, communications manager at The Bushnell, said that meetings started about a year ago with the group. There was no formal partnership, and the relationship grew "organically" through talks involving the iQuilt project and other downtown and state venues.

"If this was a short-term management deal, The Bushnell wouldn't need any of us," Crawford said. "It's bigger than that."

"Obviously, it has become more serious in the past six months. These guys understand the issues and economics. They have a vested interesting in making it succeed."

Improving the XL Center isn't a luxury anymore. It's a necessity. The rub, of course, is how much should be poured into the building, when it's going to happen, who's going to pay for it. Baldwin had a $105 million plan that dropped like a lead balloon. A study by Conventions, Sports, & Leisure International of Texas forwarded three potential renovation plans. As reported by the Hartford Business Journal, each plan builds off the other, and ranges between $30 million and $90 million. The two more expensive models, starting at $60 million, include moving suites to a mid-level location. The $90 million model includes retail and restaurant space at street level.

All this might sound as interesting as bricks and mortar today. But five years from now, these will be the improvements that will help keep UConn basketball in the big time. There are the improvements that can make the AHL experience more fun, UConn's hockey upgrade potentially more lucrative and, OK, we're not going to go near the NHL today …

"You know what? Never say never," said Crawford, who said he would help attract and run events and be involved with the AHL franchise if the bid is successful. "The goal is to reinvigorate the hockey market downtown."

Crawford did not have a precise cost for XL Center renovation.

"Peter Stevens is the one grabbing the vision on that and putting hard numbers to it," Crawford said. "We've seen the other studies, of course."

"There will be a long-term plan [in the official bid]. It will be substantial and quantifiable."

Will the group try to buy the XL Center outright?

"That's a tough one," Crawford said. "I don't know if it has to be the case. I know they're willing to look at that. Al has done a number of public-private things with the city of Chicago and Ohio State. LAZ Parking doesn't do just parking."

"I know they want to be flexible and do what makes sense for the community. If privatization is the way, there has been discussion. If it's a private-public partnership, there has been discussion. If it ends up as a management deal, there has been discussion. I don't think anybody knows what it's going to be yet. But this group can handle all of it."

Crawford owns and operates three area rinks, including Champions in Cromwell, where the Whale practice. He has been in business with Lazowski for more than 15 years.

"Al taught me how to read a balance sheet," Crawford said. "He taught me how to run a business. Up and down his company, he has hired local people and they have advanced."

"These are some brilliant people in this group, successful with international companies. Sometimes I wonder why they talk to me. What I hear from them is they want the money to stay in Hartford. They're tired of the status quo."

Are they the answer? Look, I thought Larry Gottesdiener had some answers when he won the XL Center bid with AEG in 2007. I thought Howard Baldwin had some answers when he got involved with the Whale in 2010. Each time we were left with more questions.

Still, these hometown guys obviously have a plan and deep pockets, and there's a feeling of excitement. We'll see if the CRDA believes it's the right plan.

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