Email: Official Fears Hartford Stadium Could Harm XL Center Plan

Emails reveal that officials worry plans to build a new baseball stadium could hurt renovations to the XL Center. (JCJ Architecture)

HARTFORD — The city's proposal to build a minor league baseball stadium could derail plans for a new XL Center or compete with the existing downtown arena, a top development official said in an email obtained by The Courant.

Suzanne Hopgood, chairwoman of the Capital Region Development Authority, raised those concerns in a June 17 email to several Hartford business officials, including R. Nelson "Oz" Griebel, chief executive officer of The MetroHartford Alliance, the city's business chamber.

That email and others related to the plan to bring the New Britain Rock Cats to Hartford were obtained by The Courant through a Freedom of Information Act request.

"If the baseball stadium is anticipated to be 'year-round' and attract concerts, shows, hockey, etc. as is being suggested, it will directly compete with the XL Center (as well as the Convention Center)," Hopgood wrote in the email.

"If CRDA doesn't have strong financials … to justify a major investment, there won't be state bonding money for the reconstruction," she continued. "The end result could be no new XL Center to replace the existing center if a new stadium competes directly with the XL Center for year-round events."

Hopgood said Tuesday that the CRDA has not taken a public position on the proposed stadium because the group hasn't been briefed on the project, even though Mayor Pedro Segarra and city Development Director Thomas Deller are on the panel.

She said she has not shared her concerns about the XL Center with Segarra "because we only know what we've read in the paper. I don't think it's appropriate for us to take a position when we have no information."

Asked if she was surprised that the CRDA hadn't been included in the discussions, Hopgood said: "I think like everybody else, we were surprised."

"We're 100 percent focused on the XL Center; 100 percent focused on the current renovations," she said. "Our goal is to accommodate our existing tenants, and we have some important tenants — UConn basketball, the Wolf Pack. We accommodate 180 events a year. We have an outdated stadium and we're trying to do renovations that will maintain it. I think at this point, we're just watching the evolution [of the baseball stadium proposal]."

Segarra announced in early June that the city would spend up to $60 million to construct a 9,000-seat stadium for the New Britain Rock Cats at 1214 Main St., just north of Hartford's downtown. But last week, following mounting opposition from city residents, Segarra withdrew his proposal and said he would submit a new plan that seeks a private partner to finance much of the project.

The stadium is expected to be completed by April 1, 2016, in time for that year's minor league season.

City officials issued on July 2 a request for proposals for construction of the baseball stadium and downtown retail and residential development. The request indicates that Hartford will open bids on Aug. 1 — the deadline for developers to submit their plans — and award the contract on Aug. 18.

Segarra has said that the stadium would host events year-round.

"The city and CRDA work in concert to preserve and grow the City of Hartford and several significant projects have come to fruition as a result of this partnership," Segarra's spokeswoman, Maribel La Luz, said in a prepared statement Tuesday after being asked about Hopgood's concerns.

"The XL Center is part of Hartford's history, an established part of our downtown core. Great cities attract diverse audiences seeking a variety of things to do. As Hartford continues to flourish there is demand for more than one year-round venue with programming that is complementary, not competitive."

Michael W. Freimuth, chief executive of the CRDA, said last month that $35 million in state-funded improvements were underway at the XL Center and expected to be largely completed by October. The CRDA, which oversees operations at XL, also was seeking a consultant to determine if the existing facility on Trumbull Street could be transformed in the future into a next-generation venue, or whether the best option would be to build a new arena.

The renovations now in the works are intended to extend the life of the XL Center to the end of this decade. They are separate from a major makeover of the existing XL or the construction of a new arena. That would cost far more, with estimates ranging from $250 million to $400 million.

When the Rock Cats stadium deal was announced, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's office insisted that it was not involved and said that state money would not be used in the project.

But a June 2 email from Hopgood to Mark Ojakian, Malloy's chief of staff, and Benjamin Barnes, secretary of the Office of Policy and Management, shows there was at least some speculation about whether state funds were included.

"Heard last Thurs that the mayor would be asking the Governor for $100 million for the Rock Cats to move from NB, on the north of [Interstate] 84 site … and the Governor had indicated his approval," Hopgood wrote. "Please, please, please give me a seat at the table when the Mayor asks the Governor for $100 million for a stadium to move the Rock Cats. … I soooooo want to see the look on his face!!"

Andrew Doba, Malloy's communications director, said in a prepared statement Tuesday: "We have not been asked to provide any assistance by the city. The Governor has been clear that any plans to pursue a minor league team in Hartford [are] a local decision."

Asked if she had received a response to her email, Hopgood said Tuesday: "The governor didn't know any more about it than we did and clearly did not indicate his approval."

In other emails obtained by The Courant, top development officials were dismissive of the stadium proposal.

In one email sent a week after the deal was announced, Ronald Angelo, deputy commissioner of the state Department of Economic and Community Development, said to Freimuth: "Meant to check in with you sooner. Congratulations! Hockey, UConn Basketball, Tennis, ECAC events, NOW BASEBALL. You're the commissioner of ALL sports."

He added, in a subsequent note: "Can't wait to watch a game and drink a nice cold Hooker beer brewed right there in Hartford."

The Thomas Hooker Brewing Co. at one point had considered relocating to Prospect Street in Hartford, a source told The Courant, but the parcel it was eyeing later went to the University of Connecticut, which will move its Greater Hartford campus there.

In a June 5 email exchange with Doba, Freimuth said he was contacted by a reporter about whether the stadium was "consistent with our (CRDA) work."

"The simple and short answer is 'yes,'" Freimuth wrote to Doba, "but saying so lends support/endorsement where I do not think it's appropriate or wise. Such a question seeks planning endorsement that will get interpreted as financial, political or practical endorsement."

Freimuth suggested as a response to the reporter: "CRDA was not consulted or engaged in the evolution of this proposal and we note that it's city land, city plans and most importantly, city money. Whether the economics of the deal, the choices inherit within the city's finances, or the politics of the decision make sense, I'll leave to others."