CRDA's Other Stadium: Your Money, Your State: The $92 million Field of Nightmares

New Haven Register: Your Money, Your State: The $92 million Field of Nightmares

Hearst Connecticut Media’s series, ‘ Your Money, Your State,’ looks at how state government spends taxpayer money, from stories that reveal wasteful spending to stories that explain why and how spending decisions are made. It’s your money, and our goal is to give you a clearer picture of how it is spent.

Bill Cummings, August 17, 2019

When the $92 million Rentschler Field in East Hartford opened in 2003, the future seemed bright for the state owned, 40,000-seat football stadium.

Bruce Springsteen played the venue the first year, followed by the Rolling Stones and The Police. The University of Connecticut’s football team was the main anchor and predictions of overflowing parking lots and spin off development filled the media.

Today, the stadium is perhaps the state’s most visible example of good intentions gone awry.

Although Rentschler hosted more than 150 events last year, those events were decidedly small.

Aside from six UConn football games, the schedule typically included high school proms, charity balls, minor soccer and lacrosse tournaments and Pratt and Whitney programs for its nearby factory.

The building runs deficits most years and this year — for the first time — the state had to directly bail out the stadium with a $200,000 payment.

“There are a lot of things that are a challenge,” said Michael Freimuth, director of the Capitol Region Development Authority, which runs the stadium. “You try to mitigate costs, but security is increasingly a bigger cost and the world has gotten crazier about what it takes to get people through the door.”

With no major musical acts since 2007, Rentschler has been bleeding money. An examination by Hearst Connecticut Media of 14 years of annual audits revealed more than $13 million in deficits between revenue and expenditures.

This year’s state payment of $200,000 helped cover a $550,000 deficit.

Most years, the deficit is papered over by a $250,000 subsidy from UConn that’s required if the facility fails to break even, along with revenue from parking fees, rent from cell towers, naming rights, surpluses from better years, myriad small events and occasional soccer and lacrosse tournaments.

UConn football attendance has dwindled, leaving less than 10,000 die-hard fans per game scattered among 30,000 empty seats.

The Hartford Athletic, the city’s professional soccer team, left the stadium this year for a renovated Dillon Stadium in Hartford that holds just over 5,000 people.

And the nearby Xfinity Theatre lures away the big musical acts, along with the casinos in Eastern Connecticut.

The event schedule for the remainder of the year is hardly impressive. Beyond the usual six UConn football games, the schedule includes several 5K runs and a truck convoy to raise money for the Make a Wish Foundation.

Patriot born

The story of Rentschler Field — officially known as Pratt and Whitney Stadium — is a cautionary tale of how taxpayer dollars don’t always guarantee success.

The stadium was born out of the failed effort in the 1990s to bring the New England Patriots to Hartford, a consolation prize of sorts from former Gov. John Rowland years before he landed in jail for corruption.

The state was prepared to sell $250 million in bonds to build a Patriots stadium in downtown Hartford, near I-91 and the Capitol exits.

After the Patriots backed out, Rowland sold bonds to build Rentschler and moved the field to vacant land near Pratt and Whitney in East Hartford.

The land surrounding the stadium is owned by the United Technologies Corporation, the parent company of Pratt and Whitney, a defense contractor.

The plan was to fill the area with a mix of stores and apartments to compliment the stadium. A Cabella’s settled near the stadium, but the surrounding acreage remains vacant and dreams of shopping centers faded.

East Hartford Mayor Marcia Leclerc said numerous plans came and went to develop the UTC property.

“The town rezoned the property from a heavy industrial to a design development district, which allows for flexibility in uses allowed and placement and design of buildings,” Leclerc said. “As the development of this site was beginning to take shape, in 2008 and 2009, the recession put an indefinite hold on their plans.”

She said Cabela’s opened in 2007 with state and local assistance. A few years later, new plans for an outlet mall were drawn up, including restaurants and housing, but that idea also fizzled.

“The developer’s financing ultimately did not come together by the deadlines and the project was abandoned by UTC,” Leclerc said. “The town is hopeful that in the future we can continue to work with UTC to develop the property.”

Freimuth also pointed to outside economic pressures as the reason promised spin off development never materialized.

“I don’t have all the answers,” Freimuth said. “For a long time, (development) was pursued. Football stadiums are not economic spinoffs. They don’t generate the action other types of facilities (such as an arena) do.”

UConn’s stadium

The reality is the field was primarily built to house UConn’s football program.

But that relationship with UConn, which helps keep the stadium afloat, has hindered efforts to fill it, Freimuth said.

The reason is the lease with UConn. Aside from paying a $172,000 per game fee and the $250,000 subsidy to offset losses, the lease stipulates that the stadium cannot book events that don’t break even.

“In some ways, it restricts what you can do out there,” Freimuth said. “You really can’t experiment because you can run the risk of losing money. You have to have guarantees in place.”

He said without that restriction, it’s likely higher profile events and more revenue could be brought to the venue.

“We could make more risk assessments and produce more revenue,” Freimuth said. “But fundamentally, UConn is the primary tenant. And its responsible for up to a $250,000 loss.”

Stephanie Reitz, a UConn spokeswoman, said the school since 2014 paid the stadium about $8.1 million, including game rent and the $250,000 subsidy.

Reitz referred questions about lease restrictions and the stadium’s future to the CRDA.

It also doesn’t help that UConn’s football program is struggling.

In 2013, games averaged 22,000 fans, but by 2019 attendance had dropped to an average of 9,800 per game.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association reports UConn football attendance decreased by 48 percent since 2008, when fan support peaked at over 39,000 per game.

Football is the university’s most expensive team, costing over $15 million a year to operate. Ticket sales are trending downward, from $3.3 million in 2017 to $2.4 million in 2018.

The fact that UConn won only one football game last year has not helped fill seats.

‘Critical moment’

Leclerc said the state’s payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) to the town is shrinking.

“The town doesn’t collect taxes on the land because it is owned by the state and will receive only $69,000 in PILOT funding this year, compared to over $1.2 million in 2008,” Leclerc said.

Freimuth said the loss of the Hartford soccer team is a blow and conceded the stadium’s future is uncertain.

“There are so many competing things to do,” Freimuth said, referring to other entertainment options. “You have to appeal in ways you once didn’t have to.

“The use is evolving. The reduction in attendance (at stadiums) is a national thing. The building is getting older and the expenses are not going to disappear. It’s a critical moment, no question.”

Asked if taxpayers will increasingly be called upon to subsidize the aging and struggling facility, Freimuth offered a frank assessment.

“Yes, that’s right,” he said.

The original New Haven Register article can be found here.

TJ ClynchComment