As construction crews work on a $56 million minor-league baseball stadium north of downtown Hartford, Conn., state lawmakers joust over its financing.
The New Britain Rock Cats, a Class AA affiliate of the Colorado Rockies, plan to move 12 miles northeast to the Connecticut's capital city and rename themselves the Hartford Yard Goats next year, when the ballpark is expected to open.
State-issued bonds could help finance the ballpark as part of an overall $1.8 billion revenue-generation package, according to Democrats in the General Assembly's finance, revenue and bonding committee. Some other lawmakers criticize the use of state funds for this venture.
Under the proposed arrangement, the state's economic development financing wing, Connecticut Innovations Inc., in conjunction with the city, could issue tax increment financing bonds backed by a portion of the incremental state sales and hotel tax revenue generated at the development, excluding ballpark-related revenues - this despite no hotel plans for now at the site.
It replaces a measure that would have allocated a portion of a state 10% admissions tax to Hartford, which city officials estimated could have generated about $426,000 annually.
"Since TIFs involve the issuance of general obligation debt to be serviced by the general fund, this proposal will result in a potentially significant general fund debt service cost to the state but the amount of timing are uncertain at this time," said a memorandum from the General Assembly's Office of Fiscal Analysis.
Either way, said Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, it's objectionable back-door siphoning of state funds to Hartford for the ballpark. Just how much money is uncertain, and that also worries him. So does the use of state funds to relocate a business within Connecticut.
"It's really scary," Fasano said in an interview. "If Hartford wants to do something with that desolated spot, it's a Hartford issue. But when they start asking the state to give money, that's different.
"If they want to present the TIF calculations before the legislature for us to consider before a vote, that's one thing," Fasano said. "We do plenty of those. But then, it became part of a financing package and there's no further action. We don't get to review anything.
"When I talk to lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, they don't like this deal," Fasano said. "There was some understanding that the City of Hartford and the general partners of the Yard Goats would have no need for any state assistance whatsoever. Then we see a team moving from New Britain to Hartford and they want a new stadium and a new this and a new that."
Gov. Dannel Malloy has essentially stayed out of the fray, at least in public view. "No one's talked to me about it, I want to be very clear," he told reporters. "Lots of things get proposed by lawmakers. Lots of them never see the light of day."
A message seeking comment was left with Sen. John Fonfara, D-Hartford, a stadium supporter and Senate chairman of the finance, revenue and bonding committee.
The controversy simmers amid a backdrop of Connecticut's budget problems. State Comptroller Kevin Lembo said May 1 the state general fund is on track to end fiscal 2015 with a $161.7 million deficit, which parallels revised projections by the state Office of Policy and Management.
Connecticut intends to sell nearly $1 billion of general obligation bonds this month. Standard & Poor's and Fitch Ratings have negative outlooks along with their AA ratings -- Fitch cited "lingering economic and revenue uncertainty." Kroll Bond Rating Agency also rates them AA while Moody's Investors Service assigns an Aa3 rating, both with stable outlooks.
The stadium site, at Trumbull and Main streets - planners call it Downtown North -- sits at the edge of Hartford's blighted North End neighborhood. For generations the site has been a no-man's land divided from the rest of downtown by east-west Interstate 84, just one example of highway-design convolution that stunted downtown growth. Others include north-south I-91 dividing downtown from the Connecticut River and the legendary insistence by the late G. Fox & Co. department store matriarch Beatrice Fox Auerbach on a highway exit next to her flagship of her long-since sold department store chain.
"We are connecting two neighborhoods long separated by a highway, and revitalizing an area that has been underserved," Mayor Pedro Segarra said at the Feb. 17 groundbreaking, one week after the city reached a final agreement with Downtown North developer DoNo Hartford LLC and Rock Cats holding company Connecticut Double Play LLC.
City officials are also trying to buck a long-prevailing business culture of insurance-company employees fleeing to the suburbs right after work. Segarra said the ballclub could draw 400,000 fans over 72 home games. The mixed-use development also calls for a full-service grocery store, a Hooker Brewery and Pub, residential units and retail space.
"That's been done before. In Brooklyn, the Barclays Center is the centerpiece of other types of development around the area, utilizing the facility to drive commercial velocity to the area," said Randy Gerardes, senior municipal analyst at Wells Fargo Securities LLC.
The ballclub and Hartford officials hope to book other events at the venue, such as rock concerts and jazz festivals.
"The risk from an economic perspective is how many dates are at that location," said Gerardes. "And the risk to the city is opportunity cost - is it simply a matter of trading off dollars that would be spent elsewhere."
A city-commissioned study by Peter Gunther and Fred Carstensen of the University of Connecticut's Center for Economic Analysis said Downtown North development could create 1,800 jobs during construction. Overall, it concluded, the development "has the potential to create a new vibrant neighborhood focused around the ballpark, used for both [Yard Goats] games and other activities."
Debate over sports facility financing percolates elsewhere as minor league baseball franchises have become more profitable in recent years. Officials in neighboring Rhode Island are considering a proposal by the new owners of the Pawtucket Red Sox to build a stadium five miles south in downtown Providence on land vacated by the relocation of I-195.
The owners, who include Providence attorney James Skeffington and Boston Red Sox president Larry Lucchino, asked for $4 million a year in taxpayer money for 30 years.
Gov. Gina Raimondo, however, objected to the initial proposal over fears that state taxpayers would pay most or all of the construction while the owners would stand to receive the profits. "That isn't fair for Rhode Islanders," she said.
With Hartford listed repeatedly among poorest U.S. cities - Moody's cited low wealth and high employment as credit challenges - ballpark proponents say minor-league baseball could provide more affordable entertainment for lower-income residents than shows at the Hartford Stage Company or the Bushnell Performing Arts Center.
The baseball franchise dates to 1972 when it originated as the Bristol Red Sox. It moved in 2003 to New Britain, where pitcher Roger Clemens and slugger David Ortiz played there as Red Sox and Minnesota Twins farmhands, respectively.
The arrival of the Yard Goats - the term is old railroad slang, though the team intends to use the animal in its marketing -- would mark the first professional baseball in Hartford since 1952, when the Chiefs of the Eastern League left for Wilkes-Barre, Pa.
City baseball lore includes New York Yankees Hall of Famer Lou Gehrig playing for the Hartford Senators in the early 1920s under an assumed name in an attempt to preserve his amateur status while he attended Columbia University.