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Primary Gives Hartford Residents A Vote On Stadium

Rock Cats Deal

Hartford city council President Shawn Woodin, right, and Mayor Pedro Segarra share a moment at the announcement of the deal to bring the Rock Cats to Hartford. (Cloe Poisson / Hartford Courant / June 4, 2014)

Thanks to state Sen. Eric Coleman, D-Bloomfield, many Hartford voters get to participate in an August referendum on city leaders' secretly hatched plan to spend $60 million on a minor league baseball stadium. Coleman, seeking re-election as a primary challenger, opposes the misbegotten proposal. His opponent, party-endorsed Hartford city council leader Shawn Wooden, supports it.

Coleman and Wooden will meet in an Aug. 12 primary in a district comprising parts of Hartford, Bloomfield and Windsor. Democrats can use the election to send a message on the plan to require Hartford residents to pay for a stadium for wealthy baseball team owners. The two sides are easy to identify: It's the people vs. the plutocrats.

The secret plan to have one of the nation's poorest cities build a stadium for rich out-of-state team owners was in the works for about a year and a half. It was announced little more than a week ago by Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra and declared a done deal. Segarra had not reckoned on the state Senate primary as a vehicle for the public, shut out of the process, to become other than patsies paying for the sort of expensive bauble politicians like to use as a diversion from citizens' examination of their shortcomings.

Last month, city leaders scrambled to balance the next municipal budget without laying off workers. They engaged in some hocus pocus to make it work, but it was one more stark reminder that the city's finances are not improving. A few weeks later, someone searches under the cushions of the city's sofa and suddenly finds $60 million in bonds available to build a stadium to accommodate a family of Boston real estate developers as they scheme to move the New Britain Rock Cats to Hartford.

At the end of March 2012, Josh Solomon was introduced to the region at New Britain stadium as one of the new lead owners of the Rock Cats. Solomon declared, according to The Courant, "This is an ideal location. We're absolutely committed to New Britain. When you look at what these owners have done here ... this franchise is a gem."

Later that year, Solomon surreptitiously began negotiations with a handful of Hartford officials to move the Rock Cats to Hartford in exchange for a new stadium. There has been some suggestion that the Rock Cats' owners were also talking to Springfield officials about moving there. Details of that have been thin and Solomon has brushed off inquiries.

A real estate developer who stabs one city in the back will have no qualms about sticking a shiv into another when he's done with it. The team's proposed lease payments to use the publicly financed stadium north of I-84 will not come close to covering the costs of the bonds used to finance its construction. The rest will have to come from city taxpayers, along with rosy projections of increases in economic activity that the stadium may or may not bring.

Any sports team, but especially baseball, is a bauble politicians cannot resist. Decades of economic studies, however, have frequently concluded that their benefits are oversold to entice taxpayers into footing the costs of building stadiums for rich team owners.

Hartford's government is often stymied by a major snowstorm. Corporate leaders are accustomed to calls from city officials asking them to keep employees home another day while city workers struggle to clear streets. No credible person would claim Hartford's tax rate is an enticement to live or do business there.

A baseball stadium is a major investment and serious risk to city finances that requires meaningful public participation. Giving the people who are going to have to pay for the stadium a voice in how or whether to proceed appears to be what Segarra and his allies fear most. They trust a duplicitous Boston real estate developer but fear the people of Hartford. However you feel about the proposal, the manner in which it was shaped, presented and defended ought to give you pause.

Thanks to Eric Coleman, thousands of Hartford Democrats will have a chance to express themselves in a meaningful way. A Coleman victory and Wooden defeat on Aug. 12 will send the kind of message politicians do not need translated.

Kevin Rennie is a lawyer and a former Republican state legislator. He can be reached at kfrennie@yahoo.com.

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