New Managers Picked For Civic Center

March 21, 2007 -- Jeffrey B. Cohen -- Hartford Courant

The state today picked a partnership of downtown's largest property owner and a prominent sports and entertainment company to run the Hartford Civic Center through 2013.

But in dumping the current operator, Madison Square Garden, the immediate future of professional hockey in Hartford is uncertain.

The board of the Connecticut Development Authority chose a partnership of Lawrence R. Gottesdiener's Northland Investment Corp. and AEG Worldwide to assume the lease on the building from the city through its expiration in 2013.

The two losing bidders were the center's current operator and Wolf Pack owner, Madison Square Garden, and a partnership of one-time Hartford Whalers owner Howard Baldwin and a company controlled by cable TV giant Comcast.

The winning plan was one of two that Gottesdiener submitted and was entirely different from the other three. Instead of offering to contract with the authority to run the center, as is the current practice, Gottesdiener offered to assume all aspects of operations -- including the lease on the city-owned building.

This plan would put all risk and all potential upside in Gottesdiener's hands -- if the center loses money, it's on his dime; if it makes money, it's his to keep.

The decision to dump MSG throws into doubt the immediate future of minor league hockey in Hartford and the future of the Hartford Wolf Pack specifically. Although a consultant for the authority told the board last week that minor league teams were easily movable and generally available, he also said that MSG was the only bidder who could guarantee a team on the ice for the upcoming season.

Today's decision is one of the final steps in a process that began in late 2005, when the state -- concerned that it would lose more than $3.5 million a year on its lease of the city-owned arena -- decided to test the market and see if anyone could do better.

When it came to managing the arena, each of the three bidders brought an array of proposals, from capital and concession improvements to strategies to boost attendance.

But when it came to professional hockey at the Civic Center, the three groups had three different thoughts: MSG stressed the American Hockey League's long-term viability in Hartford with the Wolf Pack; Baldwin emphasized the AHL as a building block toward the NHL; and Gottesdiener said the way to go is to have an AHL team while trying to buy an NHL franchise.

The authority has said it hopes to have a deal in place by the end of the month.