No More Public Spending On XL Center

January 5, 2016


We can’t have a healthy state unless our cities recover.

As it is for doctors, the first rule for public officials addressing urban ills must be to do no harm.

For 50 years, big government has inflicted enormous taxpayer-funded projects on our cities, to the benefit of politically connected contractors, and to the great detriment of the communities themselves. Growing up, I saw the damage that strategy wreaked in Meriden and New Britain, cities next door to my hometown. Large sections of Meriden were bulldozed for an ill-fated mall and low-income housing; New Britain was cut to pieces by highway projects. Neither has recovered from the outrage to their urban fabric.

No city in our state has suffered more from misguided government attention than Hartford. Three big redevelopment projects — the Civic Center, Constitution Plaza and Bushnell Plaza — chewed up entire blocks of our capital city in the 1960s. All were dismal failures, disastrous to the sense of place so vital to urban life.

The Civic Center — now the XL Center — was conceived, financed, built, bailed out, rehabilitated and rebooted with public funds. Not for a moment in its 40-year history was this downtown arena an unsubsidized success. Last year, it lost $3.8 million.

Those who believe in big government solutions assume that if an initiative fails, more public money must be spent on it. The Capital Region Development Authority, which oversees such efforts in the area, has decided that the center needs at the least a $250 million renovation and expansion — or demolition and construction of a new arena, at a much higher cost.

The executive director of the authority, Michael W. Freimuth, said, “The objective is to make this building a new building. It has to look, feel, and smell new.” In fact, it’s not the building that stinks, but the notion. There’s no need for a hulking arena in the center of Hartford. It was a mistake from the first, every dollar spent on it wasted. Any private sector investor would have pulled the plug long ago, but because the authority has our money to spend, its existence to justify and powerful friends to reward, sustainability is no object.

The answer is not for government to renovate or rebuild, but to relinquish. The property should be made available for private development, and recreated as a true city block with a variety of buildings and uses, not a single, spirit-killing concrete bunker. A model of what works can be found right across from the XL Center, by taking a walk down Pratt Street, one of the few stretches downtown still alive and appealing, with dozens of businesses at street level, many more offices above, and not a single government-built edifice to be seen.

People come downtown for the experience of a city; if all that’s involved is an event and a chain restaurant, right off the highway is more convenient for driving and parking. Cities work when they offer the rich complexity developed over time by diverse, independent efforts. The monster projects favored by politicians and corporate interests destroy the very qualities that make urban life appealing.

We should view such public-private business ventures skeptically in any case, because the deals so frequently go to entities with special influence, thanks to donations and relations. The XL Center is managed by Global Spectrum, a subsidiary of Comcast-Spectacor, which could benefit from a renovation project. Comcast-Spectacor’s chairman is Ed Snider. He gave $10,000 to the Connecticut Democratic Party in 2013, shortly after his company got the XL Center management contract. But, after objections were raised by Republicans, the money was returned.

There should be no more public investment in the XL Center. Instead we should learn a lesson from that monument to government ineptitude and stop using tax dollars for undertakings that real world investors are too savvy to back, projects by their scale destructive to our cities. Instead of vast new expenditures, we need wise policies that encourage private initiative.