Don't Put Hockey Hopes On Ice

December 27, 2005 -- Editorial -- Hartford Courant

No one can ever accuse state government of being impulsive. Connecticut could change its motto to "When in doubt, commission a study." But economic opportunity must sometimes be allowed to dictate the pace of progress.

That is the case with the Hartford Civic Center and a proposal from Howard Baldwin, a movie producer and former owner of the late lamented Hartford Whalers. Mr. Baldwin wants to bring major-league hockey back to the city. And he wants to get started before the fervor for the sport fades away.

It may be, as some fear, a pipe dream. But he has offered to do what it takes to makes this happen.

The Connecticut Development Authority, the quasi-public agency that calls the shots at the Civic Center, is not in a hurry. Instead, it will let a deadline pass to get out of its contract with Madison Square Garden, which manages the arena and its minor league hockey franchise, the Wolfpack. The team, affiliated with the New York Rangers, is not drawing the 5,200 spectators required by contract, and Jan. 21 is the next window of opportunity to make contract changes. Instead, the CDA will undertake a long-term study of the Civic Center's future while Mr. Baldwin cools his heels.

"What we feel is an appropriate and prudent course of action is to first understand the market and understand how the Civic Center fits into the almost $1 billion of investment that the state has made in Hartford," said authority President Marie O'Brien.

Fair enough. The Civic Center needs more than hockey to be a viable entertainment center. But Mr. Baldwin's offer won't keep forever, and neither will the fans. He thinks he can bring in a new team and do a better job of marketing it. He has the cash and connections to eventually lure a major-league franchise.

What's the harm in letting him bid head-to-head with Madison Square Garden? Is it written in stone that MSG and Mr. Baldwin's dreams can't co-exist?

What better way to gauge interest and get the best deal for Hartford?

It shouldn't take much study to see the Civic Center is losing up to $4 million a year under the present arrangement. The CDA says the losses can't be blamed on MSG's management, but stem from a $1.7 million annual rent payment to the city, which owns the building, and roughly $2.5 million a year in capital improvements.

Mr. Baldwin has offered to take care of both of those expenses so the Civic Center won't be a self-described "drag" on the CDA.

House Speaker Jim Amann has it right. The state can't afford to ignore a private investor raring to bring his own money and his passion for hockey to the table.