Time Isn't Right For Whalers' Return
January 8, 2006 -- Dan Haar -- Hartford Courant

It was like the '80s again at Asylum and Trumbull streets Friday night, as Whalers fans flooded the bars and the old Civic Center to honor three warhorses from the heyday of a defunct hockey team.

Come to think of it, that was the last time cranes lifted beams for a new downtown high-rise.

So here it all was, for one glorious evening: the green, white and blue jerseys, the timeless zeal of decked-out fans like Alan and Diane Victor, even a 36-story apartment building under construction - attached to the Civic Center.

Also attached to the building, but absent from the city on Friday, were two very large personalities driving an outsized dream to bring a big-league Whalers team back to Connecticut's capital city.

Their strategies are at odds, but developer Larry Gottesdiener and former Whalers owner Howard Baldwin have separately energized the faithful for yet another round of "we can do it."

That's great. Excitement and confidence in Hartford are not exactly in the same abundant supply as, say, aura and mystique at Yankee Stadium.

But in harsh daylight, with the "Brass Bonanza" Whalers theme faded and the bars closed, the dream is at best distant, at the moment unrealistic and perhaps even hurtful to the real needs of the city's renaissance.

Hurtful, that is, if the polity turns its limited money and attention toward ice, pucks, sticks and a huge new building instead of focusing on jobs, housing, education and the storefront-by-storefront rebuilding that downtown desperately needs.

This, from a lifetime sports fan who was at Shea when Buckner choked, in the Gahden when Bird stole the ball and at The Stadium when the Bar-Mitzvah boy caught Jeter's home run: Big-league teams that need taxpayer arena subsidies and make a profit only in good years are fabulous luxuries. They are not economic engines.

Backers of the National Hockey League dream see a Whalers franchise fitting perfectly with the city's renaissance. A big-league team would make people want to be here, and that would attract companies that would hire more people, and soon the only difference between Hartford and Seattle would be the size of the oysters.

That theory makes some sense, some of the time, in some places. Hartford certainly needs to find ways to attract people and make itself more city-like. That's happening, gradually.

Still, there seems to be an obsession with creating urban vibrancy for its own sake around here, as if vibrancy is the same as economic vitality. It isn't. While both are important, it is emerging industries, top-notch education, pedestrian-friendly downtowns and intelligently planned housing that add up to economic success.

Those things lead to packed restaurants, lines at retail counters and the natural arrival of sports franchises. Without those fundamentals, the vibrancy is store-bought and short-lived. Consider: If every hockey fan at every game spent $50 outside the arena, that would still only add up to $25 million a year - a blip in the region's economy. And almost all of it would have been spent anyway at the likes of the Avon Old Farms Inn.

"The state's got to invest in economic development," said Robert Flynn, executive director of the insurance and financial services industry cluster, which is aimed at helping that sector grow. "We have to pay attention to it. We don't pay attention to it."

Donald Williams, D-Killingly, the state Senate president pro tem, also urges a disciplined game plan.

"I think we took our eye off the ball when the proposal to buy the Patriots came to town, and when we planned Adriaen's Landing," Williams said. "We probably should have paid more attention to other economic sectors."

Let's be clear. These guys, along with most of us, would love to have a Whalers franchise back. The question is, at what expense, under what conditions?

Job growth in Greater Hartford has been basically flat for years. The office vacancy rate downtown, according to Cushman & Wakefield and CB Richard Ellis, is OK, not great, and overall it's not moving in the right direction.

In short, the old-fashioned approach to growth fits Hartford in 2006 better than the dream-is-in-our-grasp-now concept.

Funny thing is, both Baldwin and Gottesdiener firmly subscribe to that sober approach. Both men correctly insist that the NHL goal is years away and would require proof of great progress before it could happen.

Trouble is, their messages are being heard as "Whalers now," in part because both men have plans requiring firm action now. Baldwin wants to step in and help the current minor league Hartford Wolf Pack (now run by Madison Square Garden, which owns the New York Rangers hockey team) to roughly double its paid attendance from an anemic average of 5,000 fans a game. That would prove to the NHL that Hartford is worthy.

He'd like to upgrade the Civic Center.

"Build the market back through the team that you have in the arena that you have," Baldwin said Friday from California, where he was because he didn't want to "grandstand" at the Civic Center. "I never want to make it look like I'm trying to be insulting to MSG or the Rangers, but the fact is, it ought to be in the top of the rankings."

Gottesdiener wants to help the state finance a $250 million arena for basketball and hockey on the northern edge of downtown, with $25 million of his own - the better to attract a big-league team. That, he said, would solve all sorts of other planning conundrums that have plagued the city for decades.

"I think an arena is not taking the eye off the ball," he said.

Maybe not, but it's a steep public investment for a city that has already tapped state taxpayers deeply. And the fact is, Hartford has a decidedly mixed history as a sports town.

Hartford would be far, far worse off had either or both of these guys passed over the city in their careers. If they keep doing what they're doing - a former owner promoting hockey here and elsewhere, a developer pouring hundreds of millions into downtown housing and office space - the time may someday be right again for that annoyingly lovable "Brass Bonanza."

Friday night lifted the civic soul. Fans old and young made all the old sounds. "They've proven that they can support Hartford Whalers," said a smiling Alan M. Victor of New Britain, president of the Hartford Whalers Booster Club.

It was almost enough to win over an economic skeptic. Almost.