Rival Visions For Ailing Civic Center
Ex-Whalers Owner, Developer, Current Operator Submit Bids
December 5, 2006 -- Jeffrey B. Cohen -- Hartford Courant

The movie producer who used to run hockey in Hartford, the company that runs it now and the developer who has pledged to bring back the NHL all have put plans before the state to be the next to run the Hartford Civic Center.

In proposals submitted to state development officials last week and announced Monday, three bidders told the state how to best run a facility that loses roughly $4 million a year.

The bidders included Madison Square Garden, the center's operator; a partnership between former Hartford Whalers owner Howard Baldwin and arena manager Global Spectrum; and a partnership between developer Lawrence R. Gottesdiener's Northland Investment Corp. and arena manager SMG.

The contents of the proposals were not available Monday, and Connecticut Development Authority officials would not say how long their selection process might take or what the result would be.

"This is a starting point," said Marie O'Brien, the authority's head. "The end point can come any time and will be determined by what we see in these proposals and how our board decides it wants to move forward."

Madison Square Garden declined to be interviewed, but both Baldwin and Gottesdiener on Monday stayed true to what they have long said.

Baldwin wants to rebuild the city's market for the American Hockey League, and he wants to do it with a minor league team called the Hartford Whalers; Gottesdiener wants to manage the center and improve programming in the short term, but in the long term he wants to knock it down, build a bigger arena, and bring back the NHL.

Baldwin has been beating the hockey drum for longer than Gottesdiener, but he doesn't see the NHL in the city's future. Not yet.

"Build the market back, get everybody excited about hockey there again, and everything else will follow," Baldwin said. He cited low attendance at Hartford Wolf Pack games as a prime opportunity for improvement. The Wolf Pack is owned by Madison Square Garden.

"If people are happy with the status quo, and they think that what is being done now is the best that could be done, then they should just stay status quo," he said.

Baldwin's partner, Global Spectrum, operates big-name arenas such as Philadelphia's Wachovia Spectrum and regional draws such as Springfield's MassMutual Center. Its parent company is cable TV giant Comcast, and its representative in the Hartford proposal is Frank E. Russo Jr. - who ran the center from 1975 to 1983.

"We believe that we can deal with the Civic Center pretty much as it is," Russo said. "We're not saying by any means that this city is ready for the NHL. We're not saying the city is ready for an NHL arena...That is not our emphasis at all. Our emphasis is on bringing the Hartford Whalers back as a minor league team."

Chuck Coursey, Northland's spokesman, said Gottesdiener would want to have an AHL team in the building in the short term. "But even with significant capital and programming improvements, there is a consensus that the Civic Center Coliseum is both physically and functionally obsolete," Coursey said. "Eventually, we're going to need a new arena."

Gottesdiener is becoming partners with SMG, which operates major venues such as the Louisiana Superdome and the Pittsburgh Penguins' Melon Arena, as well as regional arenas such as the Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester, N.H.

Questions about the Civic Center and the prospect of returning major league hockey to Hartford resurfaced in late 2005, when Gottesdiener - downtown's largest landowner - announced he wanted to build a new arena and bring an NHL franchise to the city.

He recently lost a bid to buy the Pittsburgh Penguins, but his interest - combined with the state's losing investment - has fed a debate over the Civic Center's future.

A consultant paid for by the Connecticut Development Authority told it this summer that the center is a well-operated but aging facility that could never handle a major league sports franchise. A new arena could cost $300 million to $400 million.

At the same time as the state is considering its options for the Civic Center, the city is pursuing an angle of its own - it wants a major league arena in the city somewhere, and it wants consultants to help it along. That process is continuing.