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Stadium deal a swing and a miss in Hartford?

By Dick Ahles

Publication: The Day

Published June 29. 2014 4:00AM

The "done deal" Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra announced earlier this month to move the minor league Rock Cats from neighboring New Britain to a $60 million stadium in his poor city is becoming somewhat undone. For starters, the new neighbors in Hartford, aka the taxpayers, aren't impressed and their representatives on the City Council, expected to approve the deal without debate, are having doubts.

The talks between the Rock Cats and Hartford began 17 months ago, just after the new owner, Josh Solomon, pledged, "We're absolutely committed to New Britain."

He continued to express similar sentiments to New Britain Mayor Erin Stewart until the day before he stood with Mayor Segarra to tell everyone about the move to a plush, new stadium in Hartford's North End, which they're now cleverly calling DoNo for Downtown North, although NoDo, as in cash, would be more appropriate.

So far, it's turned out to be the season's second best kept secret, only surpassed by the deal that sent Bo Bergdahl to San Antonio via Germany for the five Talibans, who reported to Qatar for a rehab assignment before moving up to Kabul or Baghdad.

The announcement was a pleasant departure for the embattled Mayor Segarra, whose new, $557 million budget includes a tax increase, the elimination of 99 jobs - 100 would have looked bad - and the sale of $34.5 million in city assets. All this in a city that gets $250 million, from the state every year.

But don't worry, says the mayor, because the stadium will be paid for by the sale of bonds which will be gobbled up by enthusiastic buyers. The city needs more than $4 million a year to pay off the bonds and is assured $500,000 in rent from the Rock Cats.

The rest will come from taxes on all those new restaurants, bars, hotels and other properties that will spring up around the ballpark. A firm employed by the city to project revenue gave a rosy prediction that 400 to 700 hotel rooms will be occupied on game nights as fans flock in from all over the free world.

There were plans for a supermarket in the area but after the ballpark announcement, it occurred to the developers that people going to ball games don't represent much of a customer base for supermarkets. The only supermarket in the area since the riots in the 1960s won't be built.

Hartford has a rather unfortunate history in attracting and/or keeping professional teams. The city is still mourning the departure of its only major league team, the National Hockey League Whalers, in 1997. It left because the state wouldn't throw in $45 million to cover any losses while a new arena was being built.

Then there was the wondrous done deal to bring the NFL's New England Patriots to Hartford announced by Gov. John G. Rowland in November 1998 and called off by Patriots owner Robert Kraft the following May when he got a better deal to stay in Massachusetts. Incidentally, Springfield officials say the story that the New Britain team was interested in moving there isn't true.

Ignoring his city's past history, Mayor Segarra breezily reported the fix was in on June 4. All that remained was a council rubber stamp to be affixed the following Monday night. To help affix the stamp, it was arranged that city officials, including councilmen, will get to use a free city suite and have free parking at the stadium.

But the council's constituents showed up for the rubber stamping and they weren't at all happy about this addition to their poor neighborhood, whatever its trendy initials. And the councilmen, having been out of the loop, like the Congress in the Bergdahl trade, weren't all that ready to wield their stamps. Instead, the stadium was referred to the city's zoning commission for deliberations and another public hearing was scheduled for late July. And now, the city council president, Shawn Wooden, says he won't support the stadium unless the mayor gets some private sector money.

And the mayor? He tried to pretend he was happy about the delay in his done deal, saying he knew all along there'd be a need for "public discussion and dialogue."

Sure he did.

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