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Hartford's XL Center Due for Facelift

FEB 22, 2013 3:08pm ET
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Downtown Hartford's arena, the XL Center, is in store for a facelift.

Connecticut's Capital Region Development Authority two weeks ago chose Global Spectrum of Philadelphia to manage the 38-year-old arena and 10-year-old Rentschler Field across the Connecticut River in East Hartford.

The agreement — 10 years for XL, seven for Rentschler — includes a capital investment from Global Spectrum that could enable the state to bond for upwards of $20 million to modernize the 16,500-seat, city-owned XL Center, formerly known as the Hartford Civic Center.

For years the building, which locals still call the Civic Center, has hosted pro hockey, concerts, University of Connecticut men's and women's basketball, NCAA tournaments, and a spattering of Boston Celtics games.

Global Spectrum in September will replace Los Angeles-based AEG Management, an Anschutz Entertainment Group unit that was looking to extend its six-year run. Another bidder was Bushnell Management Services LLC, the venue management arm of the Bushnell performing arts center in Hartford, which had run state-owned Rentschler Field for three years.

State and regional officials are still working out details with Global Spectrum.

"We've got a little work ahead of us," said Michael Freimuth, the regional authority's executive director. "We have a lot of elements, a lot of moving parts, like UConn and the American Hockey League. Transition is a big hurdle. With the new operator, we'll try to structure the arrangement to get more capital improvements.

"Don't know how the financing will work out, or whether we'd do it in a funky kind of way. We haven't fully figured it out. But we expect great things from Global Spectrum."

A new contract to keep the Connecticut Whale, the New York Rangers' minor league hockey affiliate, is in the works between senior executives at Madison Square Garden Co. in New York and Global's parent, Comcast-Spectacor.

It is essential to the management deal. The Rangers placed an AHL affiliate in Hartford in 1997 after the National Hockey League's Whalers moved to North Carolina, where they now play in Raleigh as the Carolina Hurricanes.

Global Spectrum, which operates some 70 sports and entertainment facilities in the United States and Canada, has proposed $2.75 million for capital improvements, with a supplemental set-aside of $1 million annually.

The building, according to estimates, needs a minimum of $16 million for maintenance and $30 million for upgrades over the next 10 years.

"We have yet to work out a structure, but we expect the proposal will include excess revenue that we can use for a bonded capital improvement plan," said Benjamin Barnes, secretary of Connecticut's Office of Policy and Management - in other words, the state's budget director. Barnes is also a treasurer on the development authority's board of directors.

According to Frank Russo, Global's senior vice president for business development and client relations, Global will concentrate on revenue generation within the building, with such enhancements as better food and beverage options, lower bowl premium seating, bar service with views of the action, bathroom improvements and more electronic signage.

Global also wants to help reinvigorate the retail component of the complex, notably along Trumbull Street.

"The building is what it is. The physical structure is fine. But it needs capital improvements so it can successfully generate revenue," said Russo, who is no stranger to the facility. The city native was the Hartford Civic Center's executive director for its first 10 years and today works out of suburban Glastonbury.

The Civic Center's history has included the macabre and the offbeat, strangely so for a prototypical 1970s building in a city noted for its gray-suited insurance workforce.

On Jan. 18, 1978, five hours after a Connecticut-Massachusetts men's college basketball game ended, the roof collapsed around 4:30 a.m. No one was hurt because the building was empty at the time. When the arena itself reopened in 1980, UConn basketball was in the nationally prominent Big East Conference and the Whalers, featuring Hall of Famers Gordie Howe and Bobby Hull at the time, had joined the National Hockey League.

The Civic Center infamously ran out of food during a 6-1/2-hour Davis Cup tennis match on a Friday afternoon in 1987 between Boris Becker and John McEnroe, a match so long that some fans went out for a sit-down dinner and returned for its conclusion. The match prompted organizers of the international tournament to introduce tiebreakers two years later.

By the time the Whalers skipped Hartford — leaving behind, among other things, their "Brass Bonanza" theme song and an organist that sportswriters had snidely nicknamed Knuckles — UConn had two nationally prominent basketball teams, not one, thanks to the rise of its women's program.

XL Insurance bought the naming rights to the building in 2007.

Although basketball is the face of UConn sports — the men's and women's programs have combined for 10 national titles, all in the last 18 years — the new management arrangement combining stadium and arena will offer the chance to cross-market two other noteworthy Husky programs, football and men's hockey.

UConn football has played in five bowl games since joining the elite Division I-A in 2002. Rentschler Field, though downsized during the planning stages to about 40,000 after an unsuccessful attempt in the late 1990s to lure the National Football League's New England Patriots from Foxborough, Mass., intends to add extra seats for its Sept. 21 home game against Big Ten behemoth University of Michigan.

The Huskies' men's hockey team, starting next season, will play its home games at the XL Center as part of Hockey East, a conference that has produced four of the last five national champions.

"That's a big deal," said Russo. "We have the opportunity to cross-promote with two ticket bases and even consolidate in areas such as the labor force, and food and beverage."

Adding to the cross-marketing mix is Comcast-Spectacor's corporate links to the Stamford, Conn.-based NBC Sports Network, which carries Hockey East games.

Joint management of the XL Center, Rentschler Field and other entertainment venues around the region was a priority of the quasi-public Capital Region Development Authority.

The CRDA, which replaced the Capital City Economic Development Authority last year, was an initiative by Gov. Dannel Malloy to broaden redevelopment in Hartford and East Hartford and integrate the management structure of entertainment facilities such as XL, Rentschler and possibly the Connecticut Convention Center along the Adriaen's Landing waterfront project. The latter also includes Connecticut Science Center and the projected Front Street retail-residential complex.

"Now that Adriaen's Landing is pretty much in place, the new entity has a more broad set of powers, a broader sense of purpose and more of a geographic reach," said Freimuth.

The convention center operates under a different contract structure, but "if it makes sense, certainly we'd like to take advantage of economies of scale and get the convention center into the fold," said Barnes.

Freimuth, whom Malloy appointed in September, has overseen economic development projects in Stamford, Bridgeport and New Rochelle, N.Y. "We're excited about getting Mike Freimuth on board," said Barnes, who also served under Malloy when the latter was Stamford mayor. "Mike has some extraordinary experience developing vibrant downtowns."

For years, Hartford, whose insurance employees and executives tend to flee to the suburbs after work, seemingly didn't know what to do with its downtown and its riverfront. Adriaen's Landing — named after a Dutch settler who sailed up the Connecticut River in 1614 — finally opened up the waterfront.

Convoluted highway construction during the Interstate boom of the 1950s and 1960s didn't help. North-South Interstate 91 divided the Connecticut River from downtown and East-West I-84 isolated some pockets of downtown from its mainstream. Previous downtown building booms, such as those of the 1980s, overemphasized office space. This time state and Hartford officials are using a more diverse approach.

"There's a real boom market for housing near downtown," Barnes said.

Housing initiatives include a renovation of the 26-story former Bank of America building at 777 Main Street, conversion of some derelict commercial buildings along Pearl Street near Trumbull Street, and development of vacant lots north of I-84 at the foot of Albany Avenue, a main thoroughfare in the city's North End.

The CRDA has a housing committee that meets regularly. Other committees cover transportation and venues. The latter vetted the XL Center-Rentschler Field deal.

"I'm optimistic," said Barnes. "We're in a tough economy, but we're making headway in positioning ourselves for some significant downtown development for the next period of prosperity, one that will include housing, retail, entertainment, and arts and culture. This time it will be more balanced."

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