A Big-League Moment For Hartford
December 30, 2005 -- Jeff Jacobs -- Hartford Courant

What downtown developer Larry Gottesdiener has done, according to his spokesman, Chuck Courcey, is push 25 million bucks into the middle of the table and say, "Let's talk."

Let's talk about the Civic Center.

Let's talk about major league sports in Hartford.

Let's talk about a new arena.

If Gottesdiener, the head of Northland Investment Corp., has upped the ante on talking the talk for a publicly subsidized arena, we are upping the ante on walking the walk.

We're upping the ante on Gottesdiener.

We're upping the ante on Howard Baldwin.

We're especially upping the ante on the Connecticut Development Authority.

We're upping the ante on Gov. M. Jodi Rell, who oversees the CDA, and on the state legislature, which eventually must put its stamp of approval on such an expensive undertaking.

So what's it going to be, boys and girls?

Are we going to continue to play around? Or get serious?

Are we going to define our sports market and do something about it?

Or are we going to be New York's suburb for years and years to come?

Is America's largest market without major league sports going to get serious about an NHL or NBA franchise, or are we going to continue to humor ourselves with pipe dreams and cynical putdowns?

Baldwin has a plan: Nurture the market and it will grow.

Now, Gottesdiener has a plan: Build it and they will come.

The CDA, in its infinite wisdom, says let's commission a study, another delaying tactic in the longest-running sports filibuster in history.

Study this:

Do something.

"What's going on here?" an anxious Baldwin asked Thursday.

Wish I knew, Howard.

Hope it's something good.

Hope it's something grand.

Hope it makes financial sense.

Hope it's something that engenders cooperation and not a war.

Wish I knew.

When Gottesdiener stepped forward Wednesday, he changed the game. He made this more than Howard's quixotic quest and that's good news. Gottesdiener said he's willing to put $25 million - 10 percent - toward building a $250 million downtown arena and he's willing to buy an NHL team.

"If the major stakeholders [the state and city] come to an agreement," Courcey repeated, "Larry is committed to bringing an NHL team here."

We're going to hold him to it.

"He has a proven track record in Hartford," Courcey answered. "When everybody else was leaving, he was the one guy willing to invest."

Baldwin's camp had a ready reply. They've already promised they'll foot 25 percent of the cost of refurbishing the Civic Center or building a new arena.

The CDA brought Baldwin and Gottesdiener together for lunch two months ago. The lunch went well. Before it ended, Gottesdiener asked Baldwin to submit some concepts to him.

"We did," Baldwin said, "and that's the last I heard from him until he says in the paper he wants to build an arena and buy a team."

Answered Courcey, "Larry called one of Howard's representatives and told him that he got the proposal and it didn't make financial sense for Northland at the time. He said he would relay it to Howard."

Gottesdiener told Jeff Cohen of The Courant that Northland would put "real money" toward an arena and buying a team. Baldwin said he took that as a direct jab. He has "real money" and the backing to make his proposal work, he said.

Backs are up for a moment. Then everybody relaxes.

"If Larry the Developer can make this happen, I'll be the first one to buy a season ticket," Baldwin said. "I'm not in competition with him."

"Larry likes Howard and it may make sense to involve him in the hockey end of this," Courcey said. "We don't want this to become Larry vs. Howard."

Nor should it.

"But let's call a spade a spade," Baldwin said. "I've been trying to do this for three years and I've gotten nowhere with the CDA."

Maybe Gottesdiener's emergence will change the vibe, but the CDA to this point almost seems to prefer the $4 million minor league loss annually - which includes bonds on the Civic Center - over jumping into the deep end of the pool. Given the past with the Whalers, maybe CDA officials are right to be timid. But isn't it worth the chance at making Hartford a vibrant major league city again?

Do they not trust Baldwin? Do they not believe he has the wherewithal? Do they think his plan - taking over the Civic Center, impressing the NHL by reinvigorating the AHL market and starting a regional sports network - is cockamamie?

If the CDA officials are as pessimistic about the worth of an NHL return as some think they are, that would explain it.

If CDA officials think it can be pulled off without Baldwin, it should be forewarned that courting Gary Bettman, getting NHL Board of Governors approval and marketing a team is an insider's game that Baldwin knows well.

"People have no idea how incredibly difficult it is to put together this kind of deal," Baldwin said. "I've done four of them."

At the very least, the CDA ought to be upfront with Baldwin.

Northland, meanwhile, owns Trumbull Place, CityPlace II, Goodwin Square and Metro Center, and it is building luxury apartments at Hartford 21 and condos at the site of the Downtown YMCA. A third of its $1.4 billion portfolio is in Hartford and its interest should be welcomed with open arms. Northland holds the right of first refusal on the Civic Center if the city wants to sell it, and we learned plenty when Gottesdiener said he envisions turning the precious land where the Civic Center stands into "Rockefeller Center Lite." A new arena would probably go on the other side of I-84.

In many ways, this is a real estate deal for Gottesdiener. This is bricks, mortar and tax-exempt bonds. To be involved in sports, there also must be heart and soul, an emotional investment.

The NHL has marginal interest in Hartford at this point. The market needs to be revitalized. Does Gottesdiener have the sports acumen? The passion? The patience? Without any evidence of a major league team coming, it's hard to envision a legislature eager to approve piles of taxpayer money for a new arena when the Civic Center still has a number of years' use remaining.

The CDA would have to notify Madison Square Garden by Jan. 21 if it plans to end its Civic Center deal. We are led to believe there's no way that will happen. There is another option date later in 2006, but evidently it would allow the Wolf Pack to stay another season. After a certain point in 2007, MSG would have the option to remain until 2013.

"I think Larry's plan gets everybody off the path and slows the timetable," Baldwin said. "We don't have the time. Each year that passes, the market for hockey diminishes. I'd urge the taxpayers to save their money for a new arena. You have to bring the market back first."

Baldwin said somebody should hold the CDA and those who oversee the CDA accountable. Rell once worked long and hard to save the Whalers. She has the clout to find out who's playing and who's a player. Maybe she also has the statesmanship to bring all sides together and make something special happen.