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Hartford City Council Approves Baseball Stadium Deal

Jeff Cohen
The Hartford city council approved a deal to bring a minor league baseball stadium to Hartford.
The big question is whether the city will be able to afford the roughly $5 million annual lease payment it has to pay the developers to use the stadium.

A majority of the Hartford city council approved a deal to bring a baseball stadium and related development to downtown Hartford.

This has been a long process that began in June, when Mayor Pedro Segarra surprised everyone as he stood on the steps of City Hall and said the city was going to borrow up to $60 million to build a new minor league baseball stadium. Not long after, Segarra said the project was a "done deal."

Shawn Wooden was on those city hall steps, too. He's the city council president. "Let's just put it on the table," he said on Tuesday night. "The introduction of the baseball stadium was a disaster, but as someone said to me, just because you have a difficult childbirth, you don't throw out the baby."

At Tuesday night's council meeting, Wooden said a lot has happened since June. This went from a wholly public deal to a deal with a lot of private money. It went from a $60 million stadium to a $350 million neighborhood with a supermarket, a brewery, housing, and retail. Along the way, the city negotiated things like hiring more of its residents, hiring union labor, getting a bigger cut of some revenue sharing, and penalizing the developers if they don't build the entire project on time.

"I know it's challenging," Wooden said.  "I know that we don't vote on $350 million projects every day of the year. I certainly know that we don't do it in an environment where the state government says, 'We're not involved,' where our suburban neighbors say, 'We're not involved, but we got a whole lot to say about what you do in your city.'"

Wooden called the project "an honest attempt, a good attempt, a sincere attempt to address jobs, economic development, growing our tax base, providing amenities,things for residents in our city. This is an attempt. It's a lot more than a lot of other people have done in city hall and in state government for a long, long time."

The big question is whether the city will be able to afford the roughly $5 million annual lease payment it has to pay the developers to use the stadium. The city says that no real estate tax dollars will be used to pay that bill, and that the stadium development will essentially pay for itself through things like parking fees, payments in lieu of taxes, and admissions taxes. That last one still needs state approval.

It's those concerns that weighed on people like Councilman David MacDonald. He, and two others, abstained.

MacDonald said that if the numbers don't pan out, the city, and it's financially strapped taxpayers, will be on the hook. "I certainly hope, with all of my spirit, that this will work," he said. "I have my doubts. My doubts are primarily around the bottom line. I feel that taking on such a huge obligation with a lease for the stadium is a very grave risk for our city, because I'm still not convinced the revenues that we've seen in the pro forma will materialize. If they don't materialize, then we are in a very serious situation."

There are still hurdles. The plan has to get the approval of the city's Planning and Zoning Commission, and some on that body have already said that a stadium does not mesh with the city's long-term planning.

Also, the state's Hartford development arm has some concern over who will control the parking.

An earlier approval by the Hartford Redevelopment Agency might not have been an approval at all. City lawyers are looking at whether the agency, pressured by Segarra to approve the deal, actually had enough votes to pass it. It could have to consider the matter again, and Segarra may not have the votes.

There's a lot yet to do, including actually signing the deal with the developers and the baseball team.

While that is a big, complex proposition, Councilman Alexander Aponte said that the breadth of the deal is not lost on him. "I recognize and acknowledge that this is a decision that will be felt not just by us, but by our children and our grandchildren," he said. "[We] review assumptions and numbers that stretch out for the next 25 to 40 years. Forty years."

In the end, Aponte said that while there is risk, there must be faith, too. A majority of the Hartford city council agreed.

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