HARTFORD — City residents fumed Wednesday over what they called a lack of transparency and inflated job and visitor projections for a proposed minor league baseball stadium in Hartford.
The more than 250 residents who attended a hearing at the Hartford Public Library were divided over the proposal to bring the New Britain Rock Cats to the city. Some dismissed the deal as too great a risk for Hartford, while others praised the idea to revamp a long-vacant section of the city.
But many of them condemned city leaders' decision to hold secret meetings with Rock Cats' management over the course of 18 months. And others sharply criticized estimates for the number of jobs that the project would create and the number of visitors the stadium would attract.
Mayor Pedro Segarra, Development Director Thomas Deller and Rock Cats owner Josh Solomon opened themselves up at the hearing to questions about the city's plan to spend as much as $60 million to build a 9,000-seat baseball stadium at 1214 Main St. north of downtown.
The Rock Cats, the Double A Eastern League affiliate of the Minnesota Twins, have said that they would sign a 25-year lease and move to Hartford if the city provides a new stadium.
On June 4, officials publicly acknowledged a deal that had been in the works since the fall of 2012. Segarra more than once has called the project a "done deal," although the plan has not yet been approved by the city council.
The city has said that the proposal would bring the equivalent of 665 full-time jobs and more than 900 construction jobs, and generate 23,700 hotel room stays annually.
"We can't move forward as a city if we're not all on the same page," said Tina Franklin, who lives on Prospect Avenue. "That includes government and the people knowing what each one is doing. We have to foster a culture of trust, or get that back if we had it in the first place. None of the development, none of the stuff we do, is going to mean [anything] if people don't trust, if people don't know and if people aren't included in what goes on in this city."
Another speaker, Debra Cohen, told Segarra: "Residents of the city really deserve transparency on the part of city government, and I hope that going forward that's something that you really take to heart. Just please keep in mind that we need to trust you right now, and many of us don't."
For his part, Segarra said that he was not happy with the way the deal had played out. The process was "not something I was pleased at or proud of," he acknowledged, adding: "That is the nature of how [the talks] occur. I hope that I can regain the confidence by succeeding."
Segarra and Deller pitched the plan as a necessary step for an area that they said has for decades been disconnected from the city's urban core. The area, dubbed Downtown North, or "DoNo," is separated from the city's downtown by I-84. The mayor urged those in attendance Wednesday to consider the needs of people who live north of the highway.
"Be a good neighbor," Segarra said. "Think of the people in parts of the city that for too long haven't had opportunities. I know there's a large group of people not in this room that would greatly benefit from this development."
Although some residents declared the stadium proposal a bad decision for Hartford, others said that they would support the plan if the right developers were involved — and if taxpayers were not on the hook for it.
Some even suggested that Solomon pay for it himself.
"I don't want one cent of Hartford taxpayers' money spent on what is still a speculative venture," said Anne Goshdigian, who lives on Wethersfield Avenue. "The roads [in the city] are atrocious; they're minefields. We need more affordable housing. I would love to see the stadium, but I would love it if Mr. Solomon had more financial input, or [it included] private or corporate investment."
Garrett Rapsilber was one of a few who encouraged people to support the deal.
"This really does have the potential to be a catalyst for development in an area that has not had development for decades," he said. "And when else is there going to be an opportunity like that?"
After the hearing, Solomon said he was still "very confident" that the plan would move forward.
"I was happy to see a community involved and concerned about what is going on," he said. "I think that, overall, people are supportive of it and want some more details. I'm excited to be moving a business to an area that's been neglected for so long."
Another public hearing on the matter is planned for July 21 at city hall.
'A New Neighborhood'
Earlier Wednesday, the city began soliciting proposals for construction of the baseball stadium and downtown retail and residential development.
The request for proposals indicates that Hartford will open bids on Aug. 1 — the deadline for developers to submit their plans — and award the contract on Aug. 18.
The city's request calls for creation of "a new neighborhood that connects the vibrancy of our urban core and surrounding neighborhoods" with a mixed-use development of at least 300 housing units and townhomes, more than 100,000 gross square feet of ground-floor retail and commercial space — including a supermarket, public open spaces, parking structures, and a minor league stadium with a capacity of 9,000.
Deller said Wednesday that interested developers and construction managers are not required to include a supermarket in their proposals, but that the city has "very strongly suggested it and we'd like to figure out a way to make that happen." He said plans for a supermarket would factor largely into which developer is chosen for the project.
The Hartford Community Loan Fund last month said it was abandoning its plans for a full-service supermarket at 1212 Main St. — sometimes known as "12B" — because the potential grocery store operator says a supermarket isn't compatible with a 9,000-seat stadium.
But Segarra and other city officials have said that the ballpark and the supermarket "aren't mutually exclusive," and that such a store could thrive in Downtown North alongside the development of a minor league stadium.