Area lawmakers think Gov. Dannel P. Malloy should put his plans to renovate the XL Center on ice, citing concerns about whether the state can afford the project.
Legislators from the region, regardless of party, say the state should take lessons from its current budget situation before looking to bond for XL Center renovations.
“This is how the state has gotten into this problem,” said Sen. Joe Markley, R-Southington.
Lawmakers and Malloy must figure out how to close a $1.5 billion budget deficit in the next fiscal year, even as fixed costs are projected to account for more than half of spending next year. Malloy’s budget proposal includes $250 million, bonded over two years, for renovations to the XL Center in downtown Hartford.
Malloy has repeatedly said the facility is critical to a successful Hartford.
“One of the keys to economic growth and a thriving capital city are facilities like the XL Center,” said Chris McClure, a spokesman for Malloy’s budget office. “It would be egregiously negligent of the state to allow the facility to fall into further disrepair and obsolescence if we want to continue to provide a home to top-flight basketball programs and concerts.”
The project would address maintenance, repair, and seating changes to the XL Center, built in 1975, continuing on improvements to the electrical system, plumbing, and ice surface over the last three years.
Markley has been one of the most vocal critics of Malloy’s efforts to upgrade the XL Center, saying events only attract visitors to a handful of bars and restaurants around the arena and don’t entice people to live in the city.
“No one says, ‘I’m going to go to a hockey game and buy a suit,’” he said.
Markley’s not the only area lawmaker who sees the proposal as unnecessary spending.
Rep. Cathy Abercrombie, D-Meriden, said fixed costs due to debt and other obligations have made it difficult to meet the demands for needs like human services.
“At some point, it catches up with you,” she said about bonding.
It’s a sentiment that is shared by Sen. Len Suzio, R-Meriden.
“It’s a question of priorities, and the state is hard pressed on so many fronts that I would think that renovating the XL Center with public funds would not be the highest priority,” he said.
Suzio and Rep. Hilda Santiago, D-Meriden, both suggested the state try to find private investors. Santiago said the project should be put “on the back burner” without private funding.
Malloy has said past improvements were done to keep the arena viable and weren’t part of a plan to lure a professional team to Hartford. In a recent letter to the ownership of the National Hockey League’s New York Islanders suggesting that the team move to Hartford, Malloy and Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin stated “we continue to pursue transformation of the building.”
The arena currently hosts the Hartford Wolf Pack of the American Hockey League and UConn’s ice hockey teams, as well as some UConn basketball games and concerts. The Islanders future home is in doubt amid reports that the team is not making a profit for the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York.
The Islanders average 12,774 fans per game this season, but the Barclays Center can hold 15,795 for hockey games, slightly more than the XL Center’s current hockey capacity of 15,635. Lawmakers say they’re not willing to spend the money for renovations on the hopes that the Islanders, or another team, would move to Hartford, something many observers outside the state consider a long shot.
“My responsibility is to the taxpayers,” said Rep. Liz Linehan, D-Cheshire. “While I commend the governor for considering additional revenue streams, spending $250 million on something that isn’t a sure bet is a risk I’m not willing to take.”
Rep. John Fusco, R-Southington, said Hartford isn’t an attractive market for sports teams, especially after the NHL’s Whalers moved to North Carolina and became the Hurricanes in 1997 due to poor attendance and the lack of corporate support.
“I think anybody who knows professional sports, follows professional sports, understands our position between New York and Boston as two huge super markets, if you will, especially for hockey,” he said.
The rest of the NHL owners would need to approve a move, and there are questions about whether they would support moving a team from the largest media market in the country to a city that, combined with New Haven, ranks as the 30th largest. Complicating matters for Hartford’s bid is the fact that Quebec City, with a population of nearly 550,000, built a stadium in 2012 that can hold more than 18,000 fans for hockey games.
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