If someone can make a go of the Hartford civic center, they have my best wishes, but I’d put no more state money into the effort. We simply can’t afford to increase our bonded indebtedness by another quarter-billion dollars — the price tag (minus the cost of additional land acquisition, and likely overruns) for renovation of the facility.
Annual bonding has nearly doubled since Gov. Dannel Malloy took office in 2011; debt service has grown alarmingly as a percentage of the state budget, crowding out critical programs. This is not the time for expensive public projects; instead, we must ask of all state spending whether it involves a core function of government. We will be hard-pressed to pay for the essentials over the coming years; speculative ventures of questionable value should not even be considered right now.
Even in good times, we would do well to avoid large expenditures on projects which require an ongoing subsidy. If there were a profit to be made on a downtown civic center, private industry would undertake it; only government is unwise enough to invest in an undertaking designed to lose money.
The report by SCI Architects which is the basis for the planned renovation recognizes that even extensive rehabilitation is unlikely to make the venue much busier. It acknowledges that we cannot expect to attract a major professional sports team; in fact, the market analysis included suggests a return of the NHL is not just uncertain but unlikely. Competition from aggressive and well-funded casinos means that touring musicians acts won’t return in large numbers either.
It will be argued that the civic center brings other benefits to the city which justify the expense. I question that premise. Most spectators never step outside the civic center; I don’t think anyone buys a suit before the game. The planned rehabilitation will only increase the number who stay put, by dramatically expanding food and drink options inside.
The notion of revitalizing Hartford by drawing occasional, single-purpose visitors is misguided. We need residents, not tourists; what leads people to move downtown are employment opportunities and lively street life, not a stadium or a conference center. For the downtown space it occupies, the civic center produces few jobs and no vitality.
The facility originally included a downtown mall, intended to create retail traffic during business hours that would spill over into surrounding blocks. That mall failed so decisively that there has been no suggestion it be revived. We are left with four city blocks of concrete bunker right downtown, the better part of a mile of sidewalk smack in the heart of the grid where nothing happens all day long, almost every day. It is a dead zone that divides downtown Hartford and saps energy from the city.
Painful as it might be to recognize that the investment was unwise, it would be worse to throw good money after bad, as government so often does, from force of habit and lack of public outrage. Great damage at enormous expense was inflicted on our cities in the sixties and seventies, by well-intentioned but misguided experts. Their error was elegantly skewered back in 1961 by Jane Jacobs, in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, though the point still hasn’t sunk in.
“Although it is hard to believe,” Jacobs wrote, “while looking at dull gray areas, housing projects or civic centers, the fact is that big cities are natural generators of diversity, and prolific incubators of new enterprises and ideas of all kinds. The diversity rests on the fact that in cities so many people are so close together, and among them contain so many different tastes, skills, needs, supplies, and bees in their bonnets.”
It is essential to Connecticut that our cities come back; to that end we should recognize that monolithic projects like the Hartford civic center have done more harm than good. Rather than a charade of refinance, reorganization, and new construction, consuming hundreds of millions at the least in fruitless expense, we ought to recognize our mistake and turn to other options.
State Sen. Joe Markley represents the 16th Senate District.