‘Scrambling’ to open Dillon Stadium July 13 after months of delays
Construction crews have been working until 1 a.m. to finish as much of Dillon Stadium as possible in the next two weeks, said Capital Region Development Authority Executive Director Michael Freimuth.
“Everybody’s scrambling,” he said. “It’s probably going to have a few signs saying, ‘Please excuse our dust.’ Certain areas that aren’t critical to the game going on will be deferred, and we’ll get to them later in the summer, but the goal is to get the game in there on July 13.”
The Hartford Athletic of the United Soccer League started playing its first season at UConn’s Rentschler Field in East Hartford after months of delays made it clear that the $14 million, mostly state-funded renovation of the historic South End structure would not be complete for the team’s home opener on May 4. The project faced issues including bad weather, uneven terrain, foundations that were no longer up to code and a State Elections Enforcement Commission investigation into Bruce Mandell, the lead partner of Hartford Sports Group.
HSG is “actively reviewing” bringing a professional lacrosse team to Dillon Stadium about two years from now, Mandell said. The stadium can also be used for professional rugby tournaments as soon as a year from now, and high school football teams can use the field during the Athletic’s offseason, he said.
Before it fell out of use, Dillon Stadium was home to the Hartford Bicentennials soccer team and New England Nightmare women’s football league. It was also a popular live music venue in the 1960s and 1970s, hosting artists like the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys and the Grateful Dead. The redone stadium will revive the annual Thanksgiving high school football game that attracted viewers from all over the Hartford metropolitan area, Mandell said.
He said in November that the stadium is equipped to expand from 5,500 seats to more than 10,000 if fan interest remains high.
The funds for the project are both private and public, with $10 million from the State Bond Commission, $2.3 million from the Hartford Athletic and $1.7 million from the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving. The city of Hartford is bridging the money from the foundation. The state Department of Economic and Community Development promised $800,000 but did not fulfill it, so the Athletic covered that cost, Freimuth said.
The $10 million from the state was the project’s only funding source when construction began in September, but workers learned during demolition that the 80-year-old site was a foot lower on one side than the other, and they had to level it out before installing the FIFA-certified organic turf field. Additionally, the rickety foundations of the bleachers needed to be brought up to code and in some cases completely replaced.
CRDA made cuts to the project’s budget in addition to finding other funding sources, Freimuth said. The planned number of seats in the stadium dropped from 6,000 to 5,500, which in turn reduced the number of bathrooms, concession stands and parking spaces, he said.
The stadium won’t have many of the bells and whistles developers originally planned because of those budget cuts, Freimuth said.
“We’ve skinnied it where we had to, and over time it can all be put back in, but working within the $14 million, we had to deal with the superstructure issues over the nice-to-haves,” he said.
The renovations hit another snag in November when the State Elections Enforcement Commission opened an investigation into the $47,500 in campaign contributions Mandell and his family made to the state Republican Party and its unsuccessful 2018 gubernatorial nominee, Bob Stefanowski. If the SEEC found the contributions illegal, Hartford Sports Group would have been unable to sign a contract with the city and CRDA for use of the stadium. The obstacle dissolved in February when Mayor Luke Bronin introduced and the city council signed a resolution that turned the three-way contract into a pair of two-way contracts, one between the city and HSG, and the other between the city and CRDA. Severing the relationship between CRDA and HSG allowed the Dillon project to move forward again while the SEEC probe continued.
The contract struggle slowed down some of the funding, and it was resolved soon before the bad weather hit, Freimuth said.
“We got lucky in the winter, but we paid for it in the spring,” he said. “I think Noah had less rain. I’ve never seen so much. That slowed us down on concrete pours, electrical work, painting and all the outdoor work.”
HSG is the third contractor this decade to try to redevelop the stadium. Hartford entrepreneur TJ Clynch was chosen in 2013 to upgrade it for community use and women’s professional soccer, but the city terminated its arrangement with Clynch in 2014. Later that year, the city signed a deal with businessman Mitchell Anderson, but he and his former business partner, James Duckett Jr., were indicted on federal fraud and money laundering charges in June 2016 and convicted in 2017.
Reopening Dillon after all these years will be a homecoming for the Hartford community, Mandell said.
“Even on the first night it’s not going to be perfect, but the exciting part is being home,” he said. “It’s just like if you build a house. It takes a while to really move in, to get everything set and to make it your own, and that’s what we want our supporters and fans to do.”
The full Hartford Courant story can be found here.