Monday, June 2, 2014

DC proves why Hartford needs a new arena

I live four blocks from the Verizon Center in a building that did not exist when I graduated from college in 2003.

verizon center outside
My previous apartment – across the street from the Verizon Center, where I moved upon returning to Washington, D.C. – likewise did not exist in 2003.

There are three new apartment buildings going up within two blocks of where I live as I type this. It has been shocking to return to this area after spending close to a decade getting my career started in Connecticut and living for four years in Hartford. I spent many a Friday night happy hour walking past a sad, empty relic formerly known as the Hartford Civic Center.

When I moved back to D.C. in summer of 2011, my aunt, who has lived here for years, suggested I look for apartment in the Chinatown area near the Verizon Center. I laughed it off.

“Chinatown?” I asked incredulously. “There’s no way I’m living there.”

That’s because my vision of the area was from my college days, 1999 through 2003, when the building was still in its infancy. I went to Caps games, I saw Michael Jordan play and I lost my shit when the Rock won the WWF Title – but I never hung around after. Why would I? There was nothing to do. There wasn’t much to see. The best word for it was seedy. I came for the game. Then I left.

A decade later, everything has changed. There are new restaurants and stores and places to live opening up on a seemingly daily basis. The parking lot across from my building – normally vacant – is now packed to capacity on weekends here.

Advocating for a new arena is usually a surefire way to get people mad at you. It’s no secret that professional sports teams have been using cities like ATM machines for new stadiums. For the most part, these stadiums are complete wastes that suck money from municipalities that should be going to schools and infrastructure.

We have been bombarded by bad ideas.

The Braves’ excursion to Cobb County is only the latest fiasco. The problem with many of these situations in large cities is that the current stadium is perfectly acceptable. The team “needs” a new stadium simply to make more money. Did the Jets and Giants really need a billion dollar stadium? Did the Yankees really need a recreation of their ballpark? Would the Vikings have gotten a new arena without holding the city hostage and threatening to leave?

Let’s be honest – the NFL is never going to put a team in Los Angeles because it provides them all the leverage in the world when teams hold cities hostage. Without a team to threaten them, L.A. has been pretty staunchly against forking over 9 figures for a football stadium.

But what if your city doesn’t have an arena that is up to standard?

In 2008, while working for the Hartford Business Journal, I interviewed officials from Kansas City and Omaha after they had built brand new arenas without a professional sports team.

"There are so many more expectations in terms of amenities from performers, athletes and spectators," said Shania Tate Ross, with the Sprint Center. "You can't compete if you don't have the most updated arena."

The arena debate in Hartford was going strong then and it continues today. Most of the debate centers on whether a new arena would lure the Hartford Whalers back. It is the pipe dream to end all pipe dreams. I hear the “Let’s Go Whalers” chants from UConn football games echoing in my ears as I type now.
Hartford needs an arena for so much more than a hockey team.

xl center outside
Hartford needs a downtown that feels like the downtown of a major American city again. It needs big concerts and special events. It needs to be a place UConn fans want to go for basketball games, instead of a hassle.

Most importantly, the city needs to be revitalized. Since I moved to Hartford in January 2008, all I have heard and read about is how Hartford is coming back. There is a lot of talk from politicians. There is always optimism shown by the local chamber groups and economic development folks. But the talk is largely empty because Hartford doesn’t have anything tangible to point at.

A shiny, new arena? Now we’re talking.

I am in no way suggesting that a new arena is going to makeover downtown Hartford overnight – it took nearly a decade for the area surrounding the Verizon Center to change.

But it would be a start. Hartford has potential. No, it’ll never be 1986 again, no matter how hard old-timers in Connecticut wish it to be. That doesn’t mean Hartford cannot be a great city again.

I was always an advocate of Hartford when I lived there. It was better than people expected. But those people, like my parents and other suburbanites, never made it down there. Once they had an excuse – even if it was just visit me – their opinions changed. There weren’t enough of those excuses.

When people go to Hartford now for an event – even if they appreciate the city – they are confronted with one of the worst arenas in the country. The XL Center is old, decrepit, small and lacking. It needs to go and a renovation won’t work.

Hartford needs to blow up the XL Center. It needs to build a better arena. It has needed to for 20 years and counting.

Will it ever happen? 

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