If they build it (new XL Center), will they come?
For the longest time, news on the future of the XL Center, the state's biggest indoor sporting venue, was a cacophony of blah-blah-blahs. If … maybe … possibly … some day. Repeated avalanches of ambiguity that recall a line from Fred Dalton Thompson on Law & Order:
Are you boiling water or making coffee?
Even us, tucked away here in our corner of Connecticut and often detached from developments in Hartford, should care about what befalls the arena. We are sports fans. We are state taxpayers. And we know a dump when we see one.
Finally, we have movement, according to recent reports in a blog about the Hartford Wolfpack and in the Hartford Courant. Capital Regional Development Authority executive director Michael Freimuth was quoted as saying the following:
"I think we are likely to replace the building, but there are so many more steps to be taken before that can become a reality."
Those steps, as Courant columnist Jeff Jacobs deftly suggested, include thorough public discourse and specific data, well beyond anything anecdotal. Will the building get a facelift? Total makeover? Where would a new arena get built? For how much? All must be discussed.
And I have questions.
Question No. 1: If the XL Center stays on the existing footprint, what guarantees, if any, would ensure it truly connects patrons with the rest of downtown Hartford? Because this just in: For all the hoohah about the necessity of playing UConn sports downtown, the XL Center is still isolated from many of the great bars and restaurants.
UConn basketball, save the occasional weekend afternoon game, is played on mostly winter nights, where the cold weather makes walking the streets uncomfortable. The alternative, at which many fans bristle, is to pay for parking twice before the game, once closer to eateries and bars and then in the Church Street or XL Center garage for the game.
And after the game? The place is barren.
Could CRDA officials devise a plan to build indoor walkways connecting the arena and the establishments perhaps as far as Main Street? (Dish and City Steam are excellent choices, but long walks in cold weather). It could be an extended skywalk, like the one that connects the Hilton Hotel with the XL Center. Or they could mimic Middletown, where city officials went underground (a well lit tunnel with police presence) to connect the businesses of Main Street and the riverfront.
This is why Mohegan Sun, even with more than 6,000 fewer seats, kicks the XL Center in the ascot. Forget the parking for free part. Everything is under one roof: entertainment, shopping, dining. That's why its establishments are full on game nights for the Connecticut Sun and during concerts. Before and after.
Now I'm neither an engineer nor an architect. And I didn't stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night. But I do know that the XL Center's perch downtown is all but nominal. Sure, it's downtown. But does it create bustle? Hartford's new or recreated sports arena must provide bustle. Pregame and postgame.
Question No. 2: If discussion leads us to a new building, do we need 16,294 seats again? Here is the answer: No. I'd rather a more intimate 12,000-14,000 seats in a building with all the amenities - luxury boxes, party rooms, etc. - than something cavernous that might one day placate the National Hockey League.
And while we're on the subject: Even the most ardent loyalist of the old Hartford Whalers must admit the possibility of the NHL's return, given the competition from Seattle, Kansas City and Quebec City, is remote. UConn basketball, meanwhile, can't come close to filling the place regularly anymore. The men averaged 10,881 at the XL this past season. The women: 9,132.
Translation: If the crown jewels of Connecticut sports can't fill the existing arena and the NHL is a longshot, why not build a new arena that's more representative of what the teams actually draw? It would hardly be an afterthought with, say, 13,500 seats. The Dunkin Donuts Center in Providence (capacity: 12,400) earned first- and second-round games of the NCAA basketball tournament in 2010 and has an NCAA Hockey regional next year.
This is going to generate plenty of debate. It should. But the far greater concern: Is a new arena going to make us all more interested in going to our flagship city?
This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.
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