Consultant Hired For Civic Center
April 4, 2006 -- Jeffrey B. Cohen -- Hartford Courant

There are those who see the outdated, undersized Hartford Civic Center and dream of knocking it down, building a new arena and filling it with a major league hockey team.

Then there are those who look at the same center, see the state losing $4 million a year for the next seven years, and want to find a better way.

The second group won a small victory Monday, as the state agency that operates the Civic Center selected a consultant to study whether the state could better manage the center, while making it clear the bigger questions may be beyond its authority.

"There has to be a focus on the operational effectiveness of the existing facility, because it's the one thing that we control," said Antonio Roberto, executive director of the Connecticut Development Authority.

One consensus from all three presenters Monday, Roberto said, was that the existing facility could not handle a major league professional sports franchise.

But Philip Smith, undersecretary of the state's Office of Policy and Management, bluntly told the authority that question of whether there should be a new sports arena in Hartford is "not our issue."

Frustrated with the state's roughly $4 million annual loss on the facility, and spurred on by renewed interest in bringing a National Hockey League team back to Hartford, the authority selected Conventions, Sports & Leisure International, or CSL, of Plano, Texas, to help it through the next few months.

The goal is to have a vision for the building's immediate future by late summer.

Richard T. Mulready, the board's vice chairman and chair of its finance committee, put the question simply: "What is the best thing we can do with this asset?"

As it answers that question, the consultant will also help the state seek private investors willing to make that happen.

Although the Civic Center is owned by the city of Hartford, the state has a lease on it that runs through 2013. According to the authority, the state could lose $30 million by the end of the lease.

The state now has a contract with Madison Square Garden to operate the Civic Center which also goes through 2013. MSG owns the Hartford Wolf Pack, the New York Rangers' American Hockey League farm team.

Two men have recently floated the idea of bringing the National Hockey League back to Hartford. Former Whalers owner Howard Baldwin has offered to take over the lease with the city, do capital improvements on the building, and attempt to bring back major league hockey should a new American Hockey League team succeed.

Lawrence R. Gottesdiener, head of Northland Investment Corp., developer of the Hartford 21 luxury residential tower at the Civic Center, has proposed building a $250 million sports and entertainment arena in the city, with $25 million of his own money and the rest as public financing. He would try to bring an NHL team, as well.

Gottesdiener's company also has first right of refusal on the Civic Center should the city choose to sell it.

Bill Rhoda, CSL's principal, has worked on projects including a new NFL stadium for the Arizona Cardinals, an analysis of a new facility to replace the Kemper Arena/Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo., and the development of the Pepsi Center in Denver.

Rhoda's partner, Russ Simons, is a Berlin native and a principal at HOK - primarily an architectural firm. But Simons' expertise is in venue operations.

"Our group is specifically designed for facility assessment," Simons said. "Our focus is to benchmark the facility in its current position."

"When it first opened, the mall was an exciting destination," Simons said of the Civic Center. "As I drove around it yesterday and I had a look at it yesterday, speaking frankly, I was a little disappointed because the enthusiasm I remember as a boy didn't appear to be present."

Simons said it was too soon to know whether the building could be renovated.

The authority chose CSL and HOK over proposals from Brailsford & Dunlavey of Washington, D.C., and Barrett Sports Group of California.

At the end of the meeting, Smith misspoke when he made the motion to select CSL. He called the company CSI, like the television show.

"CSI?" said Mulready, to laughter. "All they would do is an autopsy."

"Well, Mr. Chairman," Smith responded. "There are those who would argue that that is what is required."