$100Mrehabof Hartford's XL Center comes as cities spend big on arenas

Jul. 23—That's the new standard for spectators at mid-sized sports stadiums and concert arenas across the nation — and a glimpse of the challenges and opportunities facing Hartford's XL Center.

With $100 million budgeted for an overhaul of the XL Center set to start next year, consultants in the arena business say that Connecticut needs to spend big to just stay in the game as cities around the nation invest in major venues.

Renovation plans full speed ahead

With the $100 million secured at the close of this year's legislative session, XL Center managers are now in the middle of the design process, sketching out a multiyear, multiphase renovation of the 48-year-old arena, once known as the Hartford Civic Center. An upgraded XL is seen as crucial to continued viability for the arena and key to hopes of attracting an NHL franchise.

Bids on the first part of the XL rehab should go out by the end of August with contracts expected to be signed in early fall, said Michael Freimuth, executive director of the Capital Region Development Authority (CRDA), which manages the arena.

"There's meetings almost on a daily basis," Freimuth said of the renovation project. Other key priorities include updating CRDA's deal with the center's operator, Oak View Group, along with pacts with the state and city of Hartford.

With much of the renovation happening "at the back of the house" and during the week and slower summer months, XL Center attendees may not notice any changes for months, Freimuth said.

High on the priority list is expanding the loading docks for the arena to allow for quicker setup and breakdown by national acts. Upgrading the electrical and IT grid is also prioritized to allow for easier use of cell phones and other technology inside the XL.

An expanse of brand-new-glass marks the near-completion of the revamp's first phase — a new sports-betting venue on the west side of the XL Center facing Ann Uccello Street. Run by the state lottery, the sportsbook is on schedule to open for business by the end of next month, Freimuth said. Gamblers can access the sportsbook from the street but will need a ticket to enter the larger arena.

"Operationally we should be a go for September 1," Freimuth said, adding that major HVAC and electrical work had been completed despite supply-chain delays. "We're now actually finishing the place up."

Later phases of the XL revamp include creating more overall seating by pushing back the stage, adding a new concourse and building more luxury-level seats near the floor.

Arenas load up on amenities

Luxury seating, wider concourses and expanded food and beverage options are the bare minimum to keep an arena competitive in the current high-stakes market, said national consultants who have reviewed the XL Center project.

"It's not the way it used to be where you build a civic center — this is all very competitive in terms of being able to get content providers to bring you events," said Carl Hirsh, managing partner at New Jersey-based consultant Stafford Sports, LLC. "Hartford is unfortunately behind the curve on that right now."

The gold standard of new venues that have come online recently is CityPark, a $460 million soccer stadium that opened late last year in downtown St. Louis, said Fred Carstensen, director of the Connecticut Center for Economic Analysis at the University of Connecticut.

"They have a technology to read your credit card when you walk in so you literally simply walk in and pick up whatever you want, and pop back out. There's no queuing," Carstensen said of CityPark. "I mean, think about that in terms of convenience."

In addition to advanced vending technology, CityPark's "chief flavor officer" picks out local and innovative food vendors, and St. Louis rapper Mvstermind serves as "the director of musical experience throughout any given matchday," according to the venue's website.

Other state-of-the-art venues debuting this year include a $335 million soccer stadium in Nashville, a brand-new 35,000-seat arena in San Diego and UConn's own new 2,600-seat hockey arena on campus, which opened earlier this year.

"Look at the number of cities that are, in fact, creating venues in the hope of attracting a franchise," Carstensen said.

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Carstensen's team has studied the XL Center over the decades and recommended continuous upgrades. "If they're going to invest in XL, make sure that you're not building something that's out of date."

"We're seeing arenas all over the country come up," said Charles Johnson of Chicago's Johnson Consulting, which has worked with CRDA on the Connecticut Convention Center. "It's a national trend to get these things in order, and also make them a better contribution to the community."

"We want downtown Hartford to experience the same thing every other city's starting to experience, and that's modern facilities," Johnson said. "It's theaters — the cultural adds are what we're seeing happen. And arenas are very much a cultural event."

"You're the state capital, so you probably want distinction for the state as well as Hartford," Johnson added.

Lawmakers' historic reluctance to improve upgrades at the XL Center reflects an underestimation of the importance of tourism and hospitality to the state's economy, Carstensen said. Officials statistics show tourism creating only about 5 percent of the state's GDP, but UConn estimates that the sector in fact generates nearly 15 percent of GDP.

Much of Connecticut's job growth in recent years has come in the tourism and hospitality industries, Carstensen said, highlighting the importance of sustaining and growing attractions like the XL Center that bring people into the state to spend money.

"The legislature and the governor are choosing to underfund what is a very important sector," Carstensen said. "Tourism is a very significant component of the state's economy, much more important than is currently being measured... talking about improvements to the XL Center kind of raises this larger framework of how important is tourism."

Upgrades in recent decades have kept Hartford's arena operational and able to attract major acts like Lizzo. The XL Center has also survived setbacks like a catastrophic 1978 roof collapse due to heavy snow and flaws in the arena's original design.

Centerpiece of a new downtown?

The XL Center's size at 16,000 seats and downtown location actually dovetail with a national trend toward integrating mid-sized arenas into urban areas and using them to spark economic development.

"These projects enliven swaths of urban neighborhoods," Arizona-based consultant Jesse Zunke wrote in a recent online article on the topic of "Rethinking Stadiums" in SportsTravel magazine. "Smaller venues are friendlier to urban neighbors and easier to build." He cited a $12 billion stadium project that includes 3,000 housing units, office space and a hotel in downtown Oakland, Calif.

With an arena of the XL's advanced age and space constraints, knocking it down and starting over on a bigger piece of land is an option that has been long debated. But the cost — likely approaching $1 billion — and logistics of a do-over make it a "bridge too far," Freimuth said.

"The market does sustain the upgrade program, which we're working on. But it wouldn't really justify a billion-dollar enterprise," Freimuth said. "Then if you were to find a new place, the land assembly that would give you connectivity to hotels and restaurants and retail and parking garages is not readily available."

Venues like the XL Center will only have increasing importance as cities like Hartford adjust to post-pandemic work-from-home trends and surging office vacancy, Freimuth said. Instead of "downtown business districts," cities will increasingly need to develop downtown entertainment districts.

"The downtowns are going to become something different," Freimuth said. Along with theaters, bars and restaurants, a revamped XL Center could play a key role in a new, entertainment-focused Hartford, he added. "For a fraction of the cost of replacing it, we can position it for the next 20 years or so."