The XL Center is crucial to Hartford's future, and city and state policymakers must come up with a plan to make sure the building isn't mothballed.
That was the message Andy Bessette, executive vice president and chief administrative officer of The Travelers Cos. and a board member of the Capital Region Development Authority, delivered to a Hartford audience Wednesday morning at Hartford Business Journal's first annual Community Excellence and Nonprofit Awards.
"The XL Center is an asset for this region, it's critically important," Bessette said. "Right now CRDA is doing a lot of good work ... and it's so important that [the XL Center] not only stays what it is today, but gets better and bigger. … It's a strong asset. We have to make sure it survives."
Bessette's comments came during a panel discussion about the three major insurers plan to donate $50 million to the city of Hartford over the next five years, to help stabilize the city's finances.
Bessestte, along with Mayor Luke Bronin and executives from The Hartford and Aetna - David Robinson, The Hartford's executive vice president and general counsel and Floyd Green, Aetna's vice president and head of the community activation and local marketing team -- talked about the momentum the city of Hartford has had in recent years with a wave of state-subsidized development, including new apartments, Dunkin' Donuts Park, a pro soccer stadium, new Stanley Black & Decker tech center, UConn's new campus, and the rise of an insuretech incubator, among other initiatives.
Bessette said all of those efforts are improving employers' ability to recruit talent downtown and making the city a more dynamic place, but much work remains, including lowering the city's high mill rate (74.29 mills).
But he stressed the importance of a strong and vibrant XL Center, which has been a political hot potato for years. The aging entertainment venue, which has lost business over the years to an increasingly competitive environment, is in need of significant repairs, and attempts to secure $250 million from the state legislature for a major overhaul have been rebuffed so far.
One alternative under review would scrap plans for the $250 million rebuild, to one in which the upper and lower seating "bowls'' are reconfigured to modern standards, a move CRDA officials have said could cut the price tag in half, to $125 million.
The XL Center funding request, however, will now fall into the lap of Gov.-elect Ned Lamont, who told the Hartford Business Journal in October that the arena should be overhauled by private investors, with state oversight, rather than the state investing hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars in the venue. The CRDA did put up XL Center for sale earlier this year and received one bid from a private developer, but it's not clear if a deal will come to fruition.
During the panel discussion, Bronin also praised the city's momentum in recent years and acknowledged the increased engagement among the city's major employers, but he said Hartford has a three-to-five year window to leverage that progress – including a $500 million-plus bailout from the state – into sustainable and prolonged economic growth.
"I think we have tremendous momentum right now," Bronin said. "But, I also believe that we have a window of about three to five years to convert that promise and potential into reality. This city has been on the verge of big changes in the past, and couldn't convert.
"We have an opportunity, and a part of it is that people are getting priced out of New York and Boston every single day. People and businesses. We are not competing against those cities, we are competing against the Des Moines, the Pittsburghs, the Austins and the Releighs, and those places that are getting that talent and those companies moving from the New Yorks, the Bostons and the San Franciscos to those second or third-tier cities."
Bronin urged continued and even greater private-sector investment and engagement in the city.
"If you are at a company, there are investments you can make that help make a more vibrant city," he said. "Maybe they are on the arts and cultural side, maybe they are investments in real estate. If you're a property owner, don't sit on your properties and wait for the values to go up. Because if you do, we might discover that five years down the road we missed the opportunity again.
"This is the time for us to put the foot on the gas for all of us and try to accelerate this momentum."