A New Dream For Downtown

December 29, 2005 -- Jeffrey B. Cohen -- Hartford Courant

Amid debate over the future of the Hartford Civic Center, a major downtown developer said Wednesday that he wants to build a new, publicly subsidized, $250 million sports and entertainment arena in the city - and that he's even looking into buying an NHL hockey team to fill it.

"We've got our own money, we're willing to invest in an arena, and we're willing to buy a team," said Lawrence R. Gottesdiener, head of Northland Investment Corp., which has a Hartford real estate portfolio worth $500 million.

"It would be an important entity and symbol of the city, the region and the state to provide a first-class venue for the residents."

Gottesdiener's proposal would be to build a 16,000-seat sports and entertainment arena that could support a major league hockey team, as well as University of Connecticut men's and women's basketball.

The site of the current arena is too small for a new facility, Gottesdiener said. Among the potential locations for a new facility are over I-84, and a city-owned parcel at Main and Trumbull streets known as 12B.

"We like the arena where it is, but it's too flawed and the footprint is too small," he said. "It's an eyesore in the heart of the city and it's competent from the inside, but it's not nice. It's not a nice experience walking into those concourses and the concrete floors ... inadequate bathrooms, steep stairwells, below-average food - it's OK, we've gotten used to it."

More important, though, the coliseum as a building sucks the life out of that part of downtown Hartford, he said.

"If the next wave of development in Hartford is to the west, then you want to unclog this clog in the central artery in the heart of the city," he said.

Persuading an NHL franchise to move to Hartford - and winning league approval for the move - has long been a dream of many in the area and might prove challenging.

But Gottesdiener said NHL hockey is not essential to make the new venue financially viable, he said.

"If properly done, the UConn men's and women's basketball could be an anchor tenant supplemented by a great series of entertainment," Gottesdiener said.

That said, he is still pursuing parallel paths - looking into both minor league AHL and major league NHL franchises, he said, adding that he has spoken to the city, two state agencies and investment bankers who are working with NHL teams.

He said his talks about an NHL team have led him to the conclusion that teams in the Northeast aren't ripe for buying, but underperforming teams elsewhere are. "What you're really looking for is some of the Sun Belt teams ... and bringing one of those back north," Gottesdiener said.

The proposal, Gottesdiener said, would require significant public money.

"The public has gotten tired of 100 percent subsidized facilities," he said. "But the city still needs to prime the pump. Subsidy is going to be part of the equation."

The $250 million could come from a variety of public and private funding sources, Gottesdiener said. One way the deal could be structured would be with $150 million in tax-exempt government bonds, $75 million from state or other government grants and $25 million in cash from Northland.

But Gottesdiener said the proposal is in a very preliminary stage and those numbers are largely for discussion purposes.

The company is heavily invested in Hartford. Northland owns Trumbull Place, CityPlace II, Goodwin Square, Metro Center and more. It also has two significant residential projects that are in the works - luxury apartments at Hartford 21 and luxury condominiums at the site of the downtown YMCA.

Of the company's $1.4 billion portfolio, roughly one-third is in Hartford. Its holdings are diverse - residential, retail, commercial, office, industrial, hospitality, development.

"We don't own any teams, we haven't done any arenas, but it absolutely makes sense in light of our holdings to take the next step," he said.

As for what would rise in place of the current arena - for which Northland has the right of first refusal should the city want to sell it - Gottesdiener said there are no firm plans, but he envisions what he describes as a "Rockefeller Center Lite," he said.

"Maybe putting towers on the corners and creating a pedestrian thoroughfare through the city," he said. "Maybe that's where Hartford finally gets its outdoor skating rink."

Gottesdiener's announcement comes as the question of the Civic Center, its future, and the long-debated possibility of major league hockey returning to Hartford have attracted both private and public attention.

Last week, the state's Connecticut Development Authority decided to study how to best use the city-owned arena, which it leases. In doing so, the authority essentially shelved a proposal by former Whalers owner and movie producer Howard Baldwin to buy the state out of its lease, do future capital improvements on the building, and attempt to bring back the Whalers.

"We've talked to Howard and we think Howard is a great guy," Gottesdiener said. "We told Howard that we would consider working with him on the hockey side. But, again, Northland has our own money. We'll put real money towards an arena and we'll put real money towards buying a team."

Baldwin could not be reached Wednesday for comment.

City officials reacted favorably to the proposal.

"It's certainly good news," said Matt Hennessy, chief of staff for Mayor Eddie A. Perez, who said that Gottesdiener and the city have discussed the arena on several occasions. "He's obviously been very active here, he has a lot invested in the area, and he has a proven track record."

While the city's first choice would be to rehabilitate the existing arena, it's not opposed to second choices, Hennessy said. "In the past year or so, there's been a lot more discussion with a lot more concrete analysis of what could work than we've seen before," he said.

Marie O'Brien, executive director of the state's development authority, confirmed her agency had spoken with Northland.

"Larry is one of the businessmen who understands that it is important to do this market evaluation and to get all of the parties in agreement with regard to any need for a new coliseum," she said.

House Speaker James Amann, D-Milford, spoke out strongly in favor of Baldwin's recent proposal and is concerned about the state's projected $30 million loss on the civic center over the next eight years.

Amann was "extremely happy" to hear about Gottesdiener's proposal, he said.

"But my story doesn't change," he said. "I'm looking for the best deal for the state of Connecticut, and more private dollars should be the top criteria for the state."