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Next up for State U should be a makeover for the XL Center

It may take a few days for the hyperventilating to become normal breathing again. Soon, though, a great number of Really Important People who have been out there taking bows the last few days will be faced with placing their cash in the vicinity of their kisser.

(Put their money where their mouths are.)

Because, really, how can we in good conscience go ga ga over UConn’s decision to declare itself a basketball school and leave the XL Center in its current condition?

That’s right, Connecticut. It’s time. No more procrastination. The XL Center, in need of an extreme makeover for quite some time, just got its bounce of the ball from the universe. The Grande Dame of 1 Civic Center Plaza has its avenue into the 21st century.

“It’s hard to quantify, but, yes, the move to the Big East is a good thing,” Mike Freimuth, the straight shooting executive director of the Capital Region Development Authority, said Wednesday. “Apathy with the team leads to apathy for the building. But the inverse is also true.”

Indeed. UConn women’s coach Geno Auriemma even said the other day that the move to the Big East “better put 16,000 in the XL Center every night.” And yet if Auriemma’s wish comes true, better attendance also means greater demands on a building that has all the figurative foundation of a card table with Haystacks Calhoun standing on top of it.

And so now with State U awash in a sporting renaissance — perceived or real — approval of the $100-125 million to upgrade the building becomes a necessity, lest every politician in favor of this conference switcheroo risk the ridicule that comes with utter fraudulence.

“The building’s fate has always been tied to UConn’s fate,” Freimuth said.

The new building, if constructed properly, would instantly become the Big East’s jewel. Freimuth said he envisions “optimizing” 11,000-12,000 seats. And yet with a rather ingenious mechanical wall, the new XL Center could still accommodate 16,000 for big events.

A mechanical wall would roll down from the ceiling to shroud roughly 4,000 seats that wouldn’t always be used, Freimuth said, a more modern version of the building’s current setup, in which a curtain drops in front of unused seats.

The multi-use wall would be available for video use during games, while also shutting off three sections of the upper bowl. Freimuth said such a setup would preclude the cost of building an upper concourse and save the project several million dollars.

Most events at the XL Center draw in the 11-12,000 range anyway, Freimuth said. The extra 4,000 seats are used for only five to 10 percent of the events.

“If we get Georgetown coming here as the No. 1 team in the country or Elton John in concert,” we’d absolutely have the ability to use those extra 4,000 seats,” Freimuth said. “By ‘optimizing’ 11-12,000, I mean that the support systems for the building (concessions, restrooms) would be geared to 11-12,000. On the nights we have 16,000, the lines would be longer, but given the financial issues, I don’t think we need to construct the building that way for what amounts to five to 10 events a year. It’s saves a lot of money.”

Freimuth said the optimal plan would be to “reprogram” the lower bowl seats with more amenities. Atrium expansion for the concourse, he said, would offer more concessions, restrooms and social gathering spaces.

Notez bien: This project began in the $250 million range. It’s half as much now, but still cleverly conceived.

Once again: There was no political arm twisting here, no frantic calls from on high to move UConn back to the Big East. It was nothing more than an idea before last weekend when news broke. The point is that now that our leadership unilaterally decided UConn’s course, it bears the responsibility tethered to the decision: fixing the XL Center, thus providing a downtown facility that honors such newfound excitement.

It’s time, Connecticut.

No more excuses.

You think you’re returning to big time basketball?

Then no more gauze and bandages for the Grande Dame. It’s time to pay up.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro 


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