Saturday, June 7, 2014 10:13 PM EDT
NEW BRITAIN — Hartford officials may be celebrating, but Mark Bernacki, New Britain Town Clerk and owner of Sir Speedy Printing, said Friday that hurdles are considerable for the New Britain Rock Cats’ proposed new home city.
According to Bernacki and two Central Connecticut State University professors, the Rock Cats relocation is fraught with potential problems.
“The Rock Cats move was a kick in the groin,” Benacki said. “Hopefully, the community can rally, maybe even make some lemonade out of lemons.”
Bernacki, former Republican candidate for Mayor, said the Rock Cats’ brand is not just New Britain; it’s central Connecticut.
“Families felt comfortable coming to the stadium,” he said. “It was an easy, accessible location off the highway.”
As a small business owner Bernacki said he was perplexed by the deal. The Rock Cats are expected to pay Hartford $500,000 a year for the first 15 years of the lease and $600,000 in subsequent years. The Cats currently have an $110,000 a-year lease which ends Dec. 31, 2015. Critics say they won’t make enough money to pay the bigger bill.
CCSU sociology professor John Mitrano also has his doubts. He said studies show economic development centered on sports franchises is often overstated.
Mitrano conducts studies examining economic development arguments for sports franchises and stadia. One study centered on Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla.; another was a case study of Hartford Whaler fans when the hockey team moved to North Carolina.
“Many of the arguments the new owners cite for moving the team to Hartford are questionable,” Mitrano said. “New stadia construction projects are notorious for cost overruns. Look at Sochi, Russia and the Olympics. There were huge cost overruns, and failure to adequately finish construction on time.”
Mitrano said the $60 million price tag quoted for a stadium in Hartford, and the projected completion of construction by 2016, is questionable. The announced creation of 600 new permanent jobs resulting from franchise relocation and stadium construction may also be a spurious claim.
“When you subtract jobs lost in New Britain, there will not be an overall net gain of jobs of that magnitude,” he said.
Mitrano said projections that the stadium will fill 70 nights a season is optimistic. It has been suggested that because Hartford is 40 percent Hispanic, and that Latinos have an intense love of baseball, full attendance is assured.
“Following that logic, the same could be said of New Britain, which has a 37 percent Hispanic population,” Mitrano said. “If the Rock Cats can’t sell out every game in New Britain, Hartford shouldn’t expect anything different.”
CCSU Professor of Geography Richard Benfield conducted a study in 2005-06 for the Rock Cats, who wanted to profile their fan base. Benfield said the notion that restaurants and bars will thrive on game nights is grossly overstated. The population that attends Rock Cats games is primarily families and older fans who aren’t likely to hang out in bars before or after the game.
Mitrano warned that once a stadium is built, and the publically-financed debt is nearly paid off, it is often replaced or extensively remodeled.
“[This is] a losing proposition to the taxpayers, but a boon to owners,” he said. “Dissatisfied with the terms they entered into, owners often economically blackmail cities with threats of relocating franchises if they don’t get more favorable terms.”
Mitrano added that in the name of dubious economic development, “sports owners will continue, like petulant children, to pick up their toys and leave when they don’t get their way.”
Both Benfield and Mitrano argued that it’s time communities placed “these owner/children” in a ‘time out.’ “Unfortunately, Pedro Segarra and Hartford have chosen to spoil them — in the hopes of economic spoils that, in all likelihood, may not be realized,” Mitrano said.
Danbury mayor and gubernatorial candidate Mark Boughton has been a vocal critic of the Rock Cats deal and said spending $60 million on a new stadium in Hartford is a bad investment. “The economics just don’t work,” he said.
Boughton gained first-hand experience with stadium construction in 2002-2003 when Danbury considered building a stadium. He cited an article in a 2001 publication of the Federal Reserve of St. Louis: “The weight of economic evidence…shows that taxpayers spend a lot of money and ultimately don’t get much back. When this paltry return is compared with other potential uses of the funds, the investment, almost always, seems unwise.”
“A new stadium is a shiny object but it doesn’t create real economic opportunities,” Boughton said. “We need to invest in job training, education and public safety so people can work the jobs of the 21st Century, not sell popcorn.”
Scott Whipple can be reached at (860) 225-4601, ext. 319 or firstname.lastname@example.org.