Dan Haar: Let's Keep The Ballpark Deal Separate From The Yard Goats Ballgames

At midday Wednesday, as the Yard Goats rolled out standing room-only tickets for the sold-out home opener, Arien Wilkerson did his part to undermine the launch of professional baseball in Hartford.

"I will never ever walk into the Hartford Yardgoats Stadium ever," Wilkerson wrote on his Facebook page, "til little boys in the north end stop getting killed and hartford starts to give a f---."

Wilkerson, a dancer and choreographer who grew up in the North End and started his own performance company, is not alone. All around, we hear voices from people upset over the way the $71 million-plus deal for the Yard Goats and Dunkin' Donuts Park went down — the rushed, dicey proposition for city taxpayers who had little say in it; the botched construction schedule; the chaos surrounding non-existent Downtown North development; and the misplaced priorities the ballpark represents, as they see it.

The voices say they're staying far from the Yard Goats games and by extension, some of them say, so should you if you care about Hartford. Maybe the voice is a high-profile activist or even a city council member. Maybe it's an echo in the heads of thousands of would-be fans.

Wherever it's coming from, right now — Opening Day — is the time to draw a clear, bright line: On one side, the issues around the ballpark. On the other side, the games inside the ballpark.

Keeping them separate can elevate the city without sacrificing the legitimate points those voices are rightly tolling.

Until now it was all a cosmic stew, a mash of questionable cost estimates, regional politics, lawsuits, game schedules, cheerleading, undemocratic decision-making, corporate sponsorships — good, bad, ugly, whatever.

With the first pitch and the crack of a springtime bat under lights (which we hope remain on until the last out), we have pro baseball in the capital city for the first time in three generations.

It's really happening. The act of going out to the ballgame has a life of its own and can only help Hartford.

No, it's not critical that all 1.2 million metro Hartford residents buy a ticket and support the team. What matters is that anyone who might want to see the Yard Goats play in person feels free to do so without fretting about those other issues while the pretzels are hot and the ball is in play.

Here's why this matters: The economic point of spending all this time and money on the team was not to make money on the stadium. Everyone knows by now that stadiums lose money, period.

The point was not to spark development in the long-abandoned lots between downtown and the North End in the hope of generating tax revenue. That was just one step toward the real goal.

The real point was to make Hartford — the city and the metro area around it — a place where people want to be. That and that alone is what matters in 21st century American economic development.

A ballpark can help if we see it as a thing unto itself, not as Helen of Troy, the constant object of battle.

None of this means the voices should go away. They matter and we pay them heed — as a separate reality starting today.

Anne Goshdigian, the semi-retired writer and editor whose civic activism came of age in her tenacious attention to details that show city taxpayers shouldering yet another burden for the region. Bill Katz, the art dealer who wrote an anti-Dunkin' Donuts Park song. Tony Cherolis, the organizer who reminds us the project isn't doing enough for neighborhoods or bicycle transit. Larry Deutsch, the dissenting council member who was arrested protesting what he said was too few minority workers building the ballpark. Alyssa Peterson, the activist who opposed creation of a stadium authority.

For some of them, it might be hard to keep baseball separate from the issues around the deal.

As Katz sees it, as long as the ballpark is draining taxpayer money, supporting it would be supporting "bad behavior."

"The games and the costs must be linked," said Katz, who, as it happens, will record his anti-Yard Goats song Thursday but won't bring the show to opening night. "Everything we do in life is interconnected. And everything has consequences."

Listen to Wilkerson, who, like some of the other opponents, is doing more than his share to make Hartford a place people want to be through his company, Tnmot Aztro Performance Art and Dance Installation LLC.

"I'm paying my taxes and it doesn't go to infrastructure that really connects with my city," said Wilkerson, a gifted and charismatic dancer who grew up in the Nelton Court housing project and on Elmer Street. "I'm exhausted with seeing 15-year-olds being shot and killed and ... our larger institutions not even recognizing that they haven't actually, truly gone into those deep, dark communities and saw their lifestyles and listened to them … like really, truly listened to them … There is something missing."

He continues, "How can a white guy come into Hartford from the suburbs and say, 'Hey y'all, I'm a white guy with money, I'm going to make Hartford better?' That makes no sense to me ... I would never attend."

Call it anger, call it misplaced, call it on-point. What these people are saying, along with the backlash in some of our heads — it's real, it's valid and it has a place. But if we don't keep it separate from the games, we will pay even more.

Former Mayor Pedro Segarra, the object of much of the opponents' barbs, remains optimistic even though he believes the story behind the plan was misunderstood.

"I think in time there really is potential to have this be an asset for the city," Segarra said. "In the meantime, we need to root for the home team, and have some spirit for Hartford."

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