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The XL Center is far too valuable to become a parking lot

This was one day last week in We-Ha — how the cool kids refer to "West Hartford" — when Gov. Ned Lamont underscored a noteworthy tenet of team athletics.

"The great thing about sports," Lamont told a crowd on the steps of town hall there to rain hosannas on University of Hartford's men's basketball, "is that you get a group of people all rowing in the same direction."

Indeed. And now it's time Lamont, his fellow politicos and other Important People dunk their metaphorical oars into the lagoon and apply commensurate esprit de corps toward XL Center renovation, lest more time and tediousness pass without action.

"COVID threw us all off the balance beam this past year," Mike Freimuth, the executive director of the Capital Region Development Authority, said last week. "In fact, the XL's absence over this last year has certainly been felt in downtown energy, hotel, restaurant and bar trade and made clearer the real adverse impact of losing the building would have on the town, certainly more than any study could ever show."

A number of downtown business owners agree with Freimuth, seeing the creaky, squeaky Grand Dame of Downtown past the need for more cosmetic repairs and straight into overhaul.

"It is incredibly important to invest in the modernization of the building," said Steven Abrams, managing partner of Max Downtown. "Downtown business is reliant on several things: theatre, business travel and our biggest nights regarding sales are XL Center event nights. I remember reading some study years ago that said over $8 million for restaurants are generated through the XL Center. So not only is it incredibly important as we move out of the pandemic, but for the long term health of a bustling downtown. This all may sound selfish, but a strong state needs a strong capital city, and the XL Center is a big cog in that wheel."

Len Wolman, chairman of the Waterford Group which runs the downtown Hilton Hotel, said, "The pandemic has had a severe negative impact on the hospitality and tourism industries worldwide. We look forward to the day when events resume at the XL Center and the Convention Center that bring visitors back to the city and fill the hotels and restaurants."

So where is this project? Moving forward with the acceleration of an arthritic snail. What began some years ago at $250 million has been downsized to a taxpayer-funded $100 million, lessened mostly through fewer seats (16,000 to 12,000) but with more focus on amenities for the lower bowl.

CRDA and Northland Investment Corp., which owns the atrium and storefront space outside the arena — viewed as an important piece in expansion of restrooms, concessions and the concourse — were to meet in January to further negotiate sale of the space. That meeting was postponed.

Northland chairman and chief executive (and New London native) Larry Gottesdiener told the Hartford Courant a few months ago that "he does not believe a substantial investment in the aging arena is a 'wise use of public dollars.'"

Note to Mr. Gottesdiener: Your property is of far more value at the moment than a speech.

"We have been having meetings with Northland over the last couple of months," Freimuth said. "They have been cordial and productive but we haven't yet reached any deal. From a larger perspective, our legislative delegation (led by Matt Ritter as Speaker of the House and John Fonfara, Chair of Sen. Finance) have maintained the priority for Hartford on getting the XL renovated. The funds have been authorized by previous legislative action. The Bond Commission hasn't awarded those monies to date. So we do what we can."

Straight up: It's time this project moved along more meaningfully. Apologies for the trite "greater good" implication here, but what other Hartford-area project is of more benefit to a wider range of people than a bustling downtown arena?

Surely, the idea of a taxpayer-funded building almost naturally runs afoul of C.O.A.T. (Chorus Of Aggrieved Taxpayers) and their fundamental moral outrage. Except that a renovated XL Center is better for downtown business owners, greater Hartford in general, UConn sports and other patrons who enjoy shows, concerts and nights out in the city. A rather encompassing list, no?

Then there's this: They're not trying to dupe taxpayers into funding a strip joint. It's an arena. An indoor village green.

Remember, too, that UConn recently hitched the entirety of its athletic wagon to men's basketball. The move to the Big East imperiled football and is a competitive wash for women's basketball. UConn sports are a men's basketball production. And so if the goal for the flagship university is to give its flagship sport every chance to succeed, UConn men's basketball deserves the same creature comforts as other Big East programs.

Villanova has a big arena option, the Wells Fargo Center. Your humble narrator saw a game there in Feb. 2020, during which thousands of Nova students tailgated outside before the game, making for quite the enticing image for potential recruits. Providence's downtown crackles during home games at Dunkin' Donuts Center. St. John's has the option of the Garden. Georgetown plays in downtown D.C.

Not to be alarmist, but the XL Center has a finite number of days remaining before it's simply not functional. It is hyperbolic to suggest the building's demise is imminent. But this project needs a similar tactic Lamont used in reaching a sports betting agreement allowing the Mohegan and Mashantucket tribes and the Connecticut Lottery Corp. to provide sports wagering and online gaming.

The deal came two weeks after the Lamont administration announced it had a deal with the Mohegans but not the Mashantuckets. Funny how things like this work: The Mashantuckets did the moral outrage thing until they realized Lamont was moving forward with or without them. The deal got done forthwith.

Why can't Lamont act accordingly with the XL Center? This is what we're going to do and this is how we're going to do it. You're either on board rowing the boat or treading water outside. Your choice.

Perhaps there's a happy coincidence here that a renovated XL Center is being mentioned as a possible major sports betting venue, adding to its cachet. Keyword: renovated. It's time, folks. The XL is too valuable to become a parking lot.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro


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