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Stadium fiasco was predictable

If the mayor of Hartford found a suitcase with $4 million in it, what would he have done with it? There would have been a long list of ideas better than building a new minor league baseball stadium.

Unfortunately, politicians tend not to think in these terms. Instead of asking, “What is the best use of this money?” they ask, “Wouldn’t it be nice to have …?”

The problem with the second question is that the answer is always yes. It would be nice to have a minor league baseball stadium. But at what cost? We still don’t know for sure, but the final tally will be at least $50 million.

In 2014, Hartford decided to it would be nice to have a minor league baseball stadium and announced the New Britain Rock Cats would move to a new home about 11 miles to the northeast. Now the Rock Cats are the Hartford Yard Goats, but they aren’t playing in Hartford because their new stadium is incomplete. (Meanwhile, the old New Britain ballfield is hosting a new team, the New Britain Bees. The New Britain to Hartford busway, another wouldn’t-it-be-nice-to-have boondoggle, is running special schedules for Bees games.)

The overdue stadium isn’t a surprise. Former Mayor Pedro Segarra, who proposed and won approval for the project, made many promises but will be held accountable for none of them. Now Mayor Luke Bronin is in a battle with the developer, Centerplan Development and its partners, to assign blame. Robert Landino, CEO of Centerplan, claims the city and Yard Goats ownership made hundreds of changes to the project just months ago. It will take years to settle such disputes, if not finish the ballpark itself.

Government contractors play a dangerous game seeking to work the system, a process which, when they are too successful, can turn into cronyism. At the same time, it is risky to upset people who make laws and control police forces.

Crony capitalism can become outright corruption, which actually happened at Hartford’s other stadium project. At the former site of Dillon Stadium, a soccer stadium project yielded federal indictments last month — and no stadium there either.

It turns out one of the developers had already been convicted of embezzlement. Allegedly, the developers used money they were paid by the city to enrich themselves, while leaving subcontractors working on the project unpaid.

Politics appears to have led Hartford officials to make risky or even ill-fated choices when it comes to selecting contractors and making other decisions, like allowing last-minute changes to the Yard Goats project. 

Would it have mattered if either stadium were finished on time? While the stadiums will have their benefits, if they are finally built, it is unlikely they will cover their costs.

One argument for the Yard Goats project was that Hartford was struggling and it needed to try something. Now, especially the way things are turning out, many in the city are going to want to take that gamble back. Hartford is committed to paying about $4 million a year for the next 25 years. Meanwhile, there are questions about whether Hartford will need to entertain the idea of bankruptcy. A bankrupt capital city would be traumatic for the whole state of Connecticut. Hartford has been in bad shape fiscally for some time, but it was a stable kind of bad. The city is approaching a much more uncertain and chaotic financial future.

Economists studying stadium projects have found that many attendees come from the local area. There is a real risk that baseball stadium in Hartford is a nice-to-have that will just compete for local dollars with other nice-to-haves, such as restaurants and concerts. Fans will have to choose where to spend their own money. Unlike the city, none of them are willing to go bankrupt to see minor-league baseball. 

 

Zachary Janowski writes for the Yankee Institute, Connecticut’s free-market think tank. His opinions are his own. Reach him at zach@yankeeinstitute.org.