Author: Dave Brooks
Date: November 15,2006

Four firms have expressed interest in reviving the Hartford Civic
Center and possibly returning a National Hockey League (NHL) team
to the Connecticut city. Officials with the facility lead a tour
for representatives from SMG, Global Spectrum, Madison Square
Garden Entertainment and local developer Lawrence R. Gottesdeiner
on Nov. 9. Madison Square Garden Entertainment currently manages
the facility, but the Connecticut Development Authority, which
leases the facility from the city through 2013, is taking bids for
a new contract. Bids are due Dec. 1.The likelihood of bringing an
NHL team to the facility remains to be seen. Gottesdeiner said he
is currently in talks with the league to bring a team to the
facility — a November 2005 attempt to lure the Pittsburgh
Penguins fell short. City officials said they’re currently
losing $4 million a year operating the building and want to find a
way to get the center back in the black.SMG’s Director of
Business Development Brian Kabatznick was one of the visitors on
the tour of the facility. He said he was doubtful that an NHL team
could use the space in its current configuration.“The
facility is a 31-year-old venue; it’s fairly functional and
could use some updating,” he said, later adding “but
unless there are major structural changes, the current building
would not be able to operate on the business model of an NHL hockey
team.”The biggest challenge, he said, was the center’s
alignment of its premium suites. The Hartford Civic Center only
offers skyboxes in the upper roof ring of the bowl, a configuration
that won’t attract major corporate sponsorship. Kabatznick
said the facility’s locker rooms and main corridors, along
with its concession stations were also in disrepair and in need of
major renovations. “Clearly, that building can’t meet
the needs of the consumers and the tenants,” he said.The city
is considering conducting a major renovation of the facility, as
well as a proposal to tear the building down and build a new arena,
priced between $300 million and $400 million. The Connecticut
Development Authority is asking the firms to assess the possibility
of building a new arena and what business opportunities were
available.Martin Brooks of Madison Square Garden said he hoped his
company would renew their contract after “nine years of
history operating the building and our firsthand knowledge of the
marketplace,” although he declined to comment further on what
he believed the building needed in terms of upgrades or what his
company was placing in its bid.MSG has a contract to run the
facility through 2013, although a clause in the deal allows either
party to opt out in 2007. MSG also owns the building’s
primary tenant, the AHL Hartford Wolf Pack, the farm club for the
New York Rangers. According to a report from the AHL, the Wolf Pack
ranked 15 in attendance for AHL teams last season, averaging 5,045
fans in a hockey arena that seats nearly 15,000.Frank Russo of
Global Spectrum said it’s likely that MSG would move its AHL
team to a smaller facility in the New York-area, possibly the
Aviator Sports and Recreation club in Brooklyn, or even the
Ranger’s practice facility.Russo said having a New York-owned
team in Connecticut just doesn’t make sense and his firm is
working with former Hartford Whalers owner Howard Baldwin to return
a team to the arena. Previously, Gottesdeiner had attempted to move
two separate struggling NHL teams to the city — the Penguins
and the Florida Panthers — without much success. Russo said
Global Spectrum has a good chance of sealing a deal, especially
with its ties to Baldwin and Russo’s experience at the
building. He was assistant director during its initial construction
phase, and helmed the building as general manager from 1977 to
1983. “I think I have a very detailed knowledge of Hartford
and the Hartford market,” he said. “I have a very good
relationship with Baldwin, our parent company Comcast-Spectacor is
owner of a major cable network and we have ties to several
formidable sports teams. I don’t want to disparage the other
bidders — they’re great companies, but I think we have
everything in line to make a very strong offer.” — Dave
Brooksinterviewed for this article: Brian Kabatznick, (215)
592-6624; Frank Russo, (860) 712-0452; Martin Brooks, (212)