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Hartford baseball deal truly perplexing

Published June 07. 2014 4:00AM

In trying to assess the news of Hartford's plans to build a baseball stadium to house what is now the New Britain Rock Cats, a passage from a book not usually associated with this summer sport comes to mind.

"Scrooge went to bed again, and thought, and thought, and thought it over and over and over, and could make nothing of it. The more he thought, the more perplexed he was ..."

The passage from Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" relates to Scrooge's confusion over the apparent shifting of time amidst his visits by ghosts. But in contemplating Hartford's plan to build a new $60 million stadium to poach a minor league baseball team from a sister city just 15 miles away, we find ourselves as perplexed as Scrooge.

No matter how much we think about it "over and over," we can make nothing of it, except, perhaps, to conclude that it is a very bad idea.

How can it make any sense for a city that is selling off assets to pay its bills to borrow $60 million to build a minor league ballpark? At a press conference on Wednesday, Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra talked of "an infusion of jobs and opportunities."

That contention is highly suspect. It also skirts the fact that it will be taking "jobs and opportunities," such as they are, away from another struggling city in the same region. Of course, some current stadium workers might just make the short commute, which in those cases will mean no new jobs created.

The big winner in this ploy appears to be Rock Cats owner Josh Solomon, who has effectively played the leaders of both cities for suckers. The team's management kept New Britain Mayor Erin Stewart clueless while it negotiated secretly with Mayor Segarra for more than a year. Meanwhile, fans in and around New Britain have faithfully supported the team, for years among the leaders in attendance in the Double A Eastern League. Ironically, just last weekend the team attracted more than 21,000 fans for a three-game series, a franchise record.

In return for the Rock Cats' willingness to sign a 25-year lease and pay the city about $500,000 a year - contract escape and buyout clauses should be carefully reviewed - Hartford agreed to finance a 9,000-seat stadium and open it in 2016.

Over the term of the loan, the debt payments will reach $4.3 million annually. And Hartford is getting $500,000? You do the math.

Mr. Solomon floated the idea that he might have moved the franchise out of state - Springfield, Mass. was mentioned - if he couldn't get a deal in Connecticut. Wow, did that well-worn sports-owner tactic work!

Granted, building the stadium will create construction jobs. It will make use of a large tract of land which, cut off by highways, will be difficult to utilize for traditional development. It's a parking lot. But a minor league baseball stadium will not drive economic revitalization. Most of the permanent jobs created will be low-wage and seasonal. Restaurants and bars might see some uptick, but for many a visit to the stadium includes some food and a drink, then the drive back home.

"Downtown residents and workers could walk to the games," noted a Hartford Courant editorial praising the deal.

That's nice, we suppose. Of course, beginning next year, those fans could also utilize the 9.4-mile express busway that will connect Hartford to New Britain, being built at a cost of $567 million. If convenience is the goal, certainly a shuttle could be provided from the busway to the Rock Cats ballpark for less than the cost of a new $60 million stadium.

Can anyone doubt that Hartford will come asking Gov. Dannel P. Malloy for some financial help? His answer should be, "No."

Of course, this deal could fall apart. It has happened before in Hartford. A certain football team comes to mind.

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