Developer Says Arena Is Priority
January 6, 2006 -- Paul Doyle -- Hartford Courant

It was about 17 minutes into Larry Gottesdiener's keynote address at the Connecticut Business & Industry Association's economic summit when a Whalers logo appeared on an oversized screen at the Connecticut Convention Center Thursday morning.

"Oops, how'd that get in there?" said Gottesdiener, chairman and chief executive of Northland Investment Corp.

Gottesdiener's speech outlined his vision for Hartford, but the insignia from the city's dearly departed NHL franchise drew the most animated reaction from his audience. A week ago, Gottesdiener sent shock waves through the region by laying out his plan to build a downtown arena and bring the NHL back to Hartford.

He didn't back down on the arena plan Thursday, imploring Hartford to obliterate the Civic Center. But after his presentation, Gottesdiener said he was concerned area hockey fans might be placing the cart before the horse.

"I want to be clear to everyone," Gottesdiener said. "This is a two-stage process. First and foremost, this is an arena conversation. Demolishing [the Civic Center] and putting it in the northern fringe of downtown is an enormous benefit for the city. ... But we can only talk hockey after we have an arena. I can have conversations about the NHL now, but I'm not going to get taken seriously because I don't have an arena. [The Civic Center] is not a viable arena."

So when discussing his plan for a $250 million arena on land at Main and Trumbull streets, Gottesdiener emphasized that the UConn men's and women's basketball teams would be the anchor tenants, along with an AHL franchise. Any talk of purchasing and relocating an NHL team is premature, Gottesdiener said.

"I am concerned that people are looking ahead," Gottesdiener said. "Northland has a lot of integrity, in my opinion. We do exactly what we say we're going to do. So I want people to understand what we're doing here."

The UConn basketball teams play a total of 23 exhibition and regular season games at the Civic Center this season. Gottesdiener has not spoken to UConn officials about the possibility of a new arena and won't approach the university until plans are advanced.

"I think that's premature, really," Gottesdiener said. "I need to see if this serves as a catalyst. This is really the beginning of a discussion and I need to see what kind of reaction we get. The reaction up to now has been almost uniformly positive. ... We're now taking legislative and political meetings. If it continues to be positive, then we'll sit down with UConn. But it's too early."

Gottesdiener said he has not spoken to Howard Baldwin since presenting his arena idea. Baldwin has offered to take control of the city's AHL franchise with an eye on increasing attendance and eventually luring an NHL team.

Baldwin, former owner of the Whalers and now a producer in Hollywood, has said he would like to assist in renovating the Civic Center.

Gottesdiener said he would not dismiss the possibility of pursuing an NBA franchise for a new arena, although he believes Hartford would be a more attractive option for the NHL.

"The NBA does not have as much of a history of teams being bought and moved as the NHL does," Gottesdiener said. "There are two benefits with the NHL. Hartford was a hockey town and NHL teams have moved."

Gottesdiener has pledged $25 million toward the arena project. Northland has a real estate portfolio of $500 million in Hartford.

If an arena is constructed, Gottesdiener said the Trumbull Street site of the Civic Center could be turned into an outdoor skating rink.

"Rockefeller Center Lite," he said.