Arena Price Tag A Reality Check

July 20, 2006 -- Jeffrey B. Cohen -- Hartford Courant

When House Speaker James Amann said he was going to make a new sports and entertainment arena in Hartford a legislative priority, he was thinking of a price tag in the range of $250 million.

But Wednesday, a state-hired consultant stunned Amann and members of the Connecticut Development Authority when it said a major league hockey arena could cost $300 million to $400 million - before parking or land acquisition.

"The dollar figure does surprise me," Amann said. "There's no way I'm backing down from it, but I also have to be reasonable to know that we're probably going to have to tackle this in a different method."

An arena that expensive, he said, would need greater corporate community support than previously thought and would be a harder sell politically.

A spokesman for Lawrence R. Gottesdiener, one of two men who have talked about returning major league hockey to Hartford, said the higher number wasn't shocking.

Gottesdiener, head of Northland Investment Corp., developer of the Hartford 21 luxury residential tower at the Civic Center, had previously spoken of building a $250 million arena in the city, with $25 million of his own money and the rest in public financing.

His spokesman, Chuck Coursey, said Wednesday that the developer has since revised his estimates into the $300 million to $400 million range.

"We have been doing research and we agreed that if we broke ground today, it would be on the lower side of that number, and the longer we wait, the more expensive it will be," Coursey said.

The new numbers were in a report presented Wednesday by representatives of Conventions, Sports & Leisure International of Plano, Texas, to the development authority - the quasi-state agency that has a lease on the Civic Center from the city through 2013.

The consultants found that the Civic Center is a well-operated but aging facility that could never handle a major league sports franchise. Although promoters and corporations would be interested in a new arena seating about 18,000, the question is whether state taxpayers would be willing and able to pay the $300 million to $400 million to build it, the consultants said.

"These are huge numbers," said L. Scott Frantz, the authority's board chairman, adding he was thinking more along the lines of $250 million to $270 million. "It's rather daunting to think about a new stadium just purely on the economics."

The next step for the state will be asking developers and other interested parties to submit proposals for what to do with the Civic Center.

In addition to talking about building an arena, Gottesdiener said he wants to buy an NHL franchise and bring it to Hartford. He is in the middle of a bidding process to try to buy the Pittsburgh Penguins, although the team is likely to remain in Pittsburgh.

Former Whalers owner Howard Baldwin has offered to take over the state's Civic Center lease, do capital improvements and run an AHL franchise, hoping to prove Hartford could support a new NHL team, which he would bring to the city.

The consultant also told the authority what it already knew: getting an NHL team will be difficult.

"The key factor is there's a lot of competition out there for minimal supply," CSL's Brian Parker said.

An arena for an AHL team and UConn basketball could be built for closer to $200 million, the consultants said. It just wouldn't be marketable to a major league franchise.

Amann is open to the idea, but it's not his preference. "If we're going to do it, let's do it right the first time," he said.

The consultants said the Civic Center's major systems are nearing the end of their useful lives, and a major expansion isn't feasible.

The state now has a contract with Madison Square Garden, owner of the AHL's Wolf Pack, to operate the Civic Center through 2013.