A Strikeout for Transparency in City Hall

Downtown North

At each of the three public meetings for the Downtown North plan in 2013, a stadium was not mentioned. In fact, it seemed like news to Utile that the XL Center would be looking for options to move for expansion. When proponents of the XL Center raised this concern, the response seemed to suggest that there would not really be room for this type of facility at any of the vacant parcels in the area being dubbed “Downtown North.”

What was discussed: a grocery store, smaller retail and restaurants, and academic uses which would connect Capital Community College and the University of Saint Joseph School of Pharmacy to Capital Prep Magnet School and Rensselaer.

The plan, ambitious and somewhat flawed, did pay attention to keeping developments at what is called a human scale. This creates an environment more conducive to walking and cycling. There had been talk of housing, which raised concerns about gentrification, but in any case, these units would not be in a high rise.

The Hartford Community Loan Fund had been working with a tenant and the City of Hartford on bringing a grocery store to this area. With UConn entering the picture, it had the possibility of being placed on hold, but this week, the City and UConn made it official that the college would be moving into the former Hartford Times building. In theory, this would mean that the grocery store would get the green light for the area near Main and Trumbull.

Curveball

Today, Mayor Segarra announced that the New Britain Rock Cats would be moving to a stadium at 1214 Main Street (between Trumbull and Pleasant) in April 2016. All of those Downtown North meetings came after the time frame given for when Mayor Segarra originally entered secret talks about moving the Rock Cats to Hartford. This raises questions about transparency, as well as questions about how money is being spent.

Why had the stadium not been mentioned at any of those meetings that Thom Deller had taken part in?

The Capital Region Development Authority (CRDA) says it found out about the stadium “the same time as everyone else.”

On Monday, Erin Stewart, the mayor of New Britain, tweeted:

Today, Mayor Stewart posted again:

At Wednesday’s press conference, Segarra said that he thought he would have “unanimous” support from City Council when this goes to vote, but comments from at least one councilperson suggest that not all are completely going to bat for this development.

Since Monday, we have spoken with people on the street, in bars, in parks, and online about the stadium. Not a single Hartford resident we have spoken with has been overly optimistic about this move. Most have had a negative impression of the mayor’s judgment on this, along with that of the plan itself. A few have simply not known what to think of it.

Balking

In Hartford, where there is a perpetual struggle to balance the City’s budget, residents are raising questions about who will be funding the stadium, a legitimate question when poor maintenance of parks and other spotty services are explained by the lack of funds. Recently, the Martin Luther King Elementary School was told there was no bond money available to fund repairs for the school.

No solid numbers have been provided about how much this would cost or exactly how it would be funded. No itemized explanation of the dollar amount has been given. Segarra said that the maximum cost City Council said it would support was $60 million in bonds, but that does not include the $1.7 million to acquire one parcel of land. The City already owns most of the land on which this would be built. Segarra said this would be City-funded, with no State participation. To date, the financial aspect has not been put into layperson’s terms, and no explanation given for why $60 million was the figure settled on.

The rendering was displayed in front of City Hall. No explanation was provided for the content of it.

Jamil Ragland, who works in Hartford and lives a few blocks north of where this stadium is slated to be built is, like many residents, underwhelmed. “I think it’s incredibly ironic how short-sighted this proposal is,” he said, “given the long-term affects it will have on the city.”

Ragland said, “There’s clear evidence from all around the country that sports teams do not work as economic drivers, and we’re going to have another dead end like Dillon Stadium sitting right in the middle of the city, except [the yet-to-be-named baseball stadium will have] the distinction of being completely divorced from the cultural, social and economic realities of the city which will surround it.”

Others have asked why this stadium is planned for Downtown instead of in or near Colt Park, where people already gather for baseball games. Some have asked what have happened to the plans to bring professional soccer to Hartford.

There are concerns that surface lots with remain indefinitely, even when every plan discussed in recent years involves trying to reduce or remove them. Segarra said at the press conference that there would be no need for additional parking; yet, the rendering clearly shows two parking garages that are neither labeled nor explained. It also includes new buildings not described during the press conference.

There are those who believe that the stadium would be a way to justify the expensive and also unpopular New Britain-to-Hartford Busway/CTfastrak project, and others who simply do not understand where this decision came from. There have been inquiries about why money would be spent on a stadium that could sit unused for part of the year. Segarra said he hoped the “facility could be used year round” and bring in the “collegiate community.”

Josh Solomon

The Downtown North area, which was supposedly about to be changed to be more walkable, is now going to be about, in Segarra’s words, “harnessing” the cars that are in the area. Mayor Segarra said on Wednesday that he has “worked really hard to increase vibrancy in the city, especially downtown.”

At the press conference, he said the “team transfer” was primarily an economic decision and one to keep the Rock Cats from leaving Connecticut. When asked what the “factsheet” numbers were based on, we got no clear answers regarding the estimated 600 new, full-time permanent jobs, 900 construction jobs, $2 million in annual revenue, or $8 million in annual hotel, food, and beverage spending. Nothing was said about how many jobs would be lost in New Britain, making the only certainty the construction job gains.

Robert Cotto, Jr., a Hartford resident, asked on Facebook, “Will there be a net gain of jobs or simply people that work in New Britain now but will be counted as working Hartford?” He pointed out that “[t]he jobs related to a stadium are likely to be low-wage, temporary service jobs.”

With the City about to spend $60 million borrowed dollars, plus interest, there is a question of how long it would take for Hartford to break even. Would this happen before the Rock Cats’ lease is up?

When asked why the team was leaving New Britain, Rock Cats’ owner Josh Solomon dodged the question, saying only that it had fulfilled the obligations of the lease in New Britain and that the lease was up.

For now, Solomon believes that Hartford would be “building an entertainment cornerstone” in what Segarra called an “easily accessible” region, where I-84 and I-91 come together.

Not everyone is thrilled that the City is willing to commit to this kind of debt. Across social media, residents and those who work in Hartford have asked about how this move is possible when we have public schools without libraries, when there never seems to be enough resources for snow removal. And still others find nothing innovative or future-thinking about this latest development.

One resident, who said he is emailing councilpersons to express his opposition, aptly noted that nobody on City Council seems to be on Twitter, where there has been a lot of dissent.

One Strikeout, No Balls

Attempts to get questions answered by Mayor Segarra and Thom Deller have been fruitless; after seven hours, no response has been received from either.  The questions sent to them through the “Director of Communications & New Media” for the City of Hartford were:

1. What does this mean for the plans to open a grocery store in the Downtown North area?

2. How does this fit into the Downtown North plan to make the area more walkable? The plans discussed over the last year show human scale development. The stadium is the opposite of that.

3. What kind of outreach has the City done regarding stakeholders in the area?

4. When will there be a public comment session regarding this plan?

We were unable to speak at length to Rex Fowler of the Hartford Community Loan Fund, but did receive a brief acknowledgement and plan to chat in the future. Real Hartford will follow up as needed on how the grocery store may be impacted by the stadium.

According to the City Council meeting agenda released today, there will be a public hearing for those interested in giving their opinions on the stadium, July 21st. The item has been added to the agenda for June 9th. If you can not make it to the City Council meeting, you can always send email or place calls to the elected officials. Councilperson Larry Deutsch said, “There needs to be and will be more discussion during the coming days before [Monday’s] meeting.”

 


For background on Downtown North:
17 July 2013
Aspirations for North Downtown, West Downtown, and a Sliver of Clay Arsenal and North Meadows

23 October 2013
Public Comment Futile on Downtown North Park Design

12 December 2013
Final Downtown North Design Meeting

3 April 2014
Marketing Downtown North