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Editorial: XL Center expansion is superfluous, costly

By Editorial Board
On December 1, 2011

  • The UConn version of Dumbledore’s Army tries to channel the underground organization that J.K. Rowling created for the popular ‘Harry Potter’ series. In the books the group is led by Neville Longbottom, Hermoine Granger, Ronald Weasley and Potter himself. The actors who play those characters are seen left to right. Matthew Lewis, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint and Danielle Radcliffe.

On Nov. 15, longtime Connecticut investor and entrepreneur Howard Baldwin unveiled a $105 million proposal to expand the XL Center, likely the largest and most popular entertainment destination in the city of Hartford. Unfortunately, several problems with this proposal cause hesitancies in supporting the project too enthusiastically.

Many critics contend that the vision is too grand in scale. Hartford will always be a smaller market located roughly in the center of the three significantly larger metropolises of New York City, Boston and Philadelphia. Trying to turn the XL Center venue into an epic monstrosity on par with the largest arenas in any of those three cities would likely fail due to Hartford's smaller population and lighter reputation.

Comparable examples do not bode particularly well for this renovation plan. The Dunkin' Donuts Center in Providence underwent an $80 million renovation in 2008. According to the Boston Globe, the venue suffered net losses in 2008, suffered net losses again in 2009, and in 2010 turned a net profit of $823.

To the contrary, the XL Center is currently turning a profit even without renovations, according to Senior Vice President and General Manager Chuck Steedman during a recent guest lecture at UConn. In part, this is due to the seating capacity of approximately 16,000 being roughly the optimal size for the city in which it is located. Too much larger and it would often be half-full. Too much smaller and demand would outweigh supply.

The collateral economic benefits to the city are already large. According to a recent XL Center press release, "Restaurants, hotels, parking authorities and local attractions will all see the benefits of the jam-packed schedule, as it is estimated that nearly $750,000 is spent with downtown businesses on every big event night." If a renovation of this magnitude failed to recoup its losses, it would hurt not only the XL Center but the nearby businesses that rely on the extra revenue.

Many arenas are in perilous economic situations at the moment. For example, the comparably sized Civic Arena in Pittsburgh was recently closed and its demolition was approved unanimously. A $105 million price tag for a renovation to the XL Center seems too large a cost, particularly when similarly priced renovations have often failed to produce effective results. 

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