To Be or Not to Be, That is the Question?
It is unbelievable to me what a difference a day can make in the lives of so many. The announcement by the new owners of the Rock Cats and the city of Hartford about their relocation plans have dealt a punishing blow to the city of New Britain and its people. For over thirty years minor league baseball has called New Britain its home playing at one of the finest facilities in the Eastern League, New Britain Municipal Stadium. Players like Roger Clemens, David Ortiz, Oil Can Boyd, Joe Mauer, Tori Hunter, Wade Boggs, Paul Molitor and Jeff Bagwell have graced the grass of our baseball fields since 1983 when the team decided to relocate here from Bristol.
At that time the ownership of the team led by Joe Buzas realized that to grow the franchise they would need significant upgrades to the stadium and Muzzy Field would not fit their needs any longer. Attempts to go to Portland, Maine were rebuffed by their city council and in swooped New Britain for the golden ring.
Fast forward thirty some years later and New Britain has found itself in a very similar position as Bristol was in the early 1980’s. As a baseball fan I can certainly understand the rationale for a franchise relocation but try and explain that to the thousands of loyal fans that have brought their kids and families to the stadium in New Britain on a regular basis for the past thirty years. What always amazed me about the experience in New Britain was that not too many of the patrons could tell you whether or not the team won or lost after the game was over. Pretty remarkable feat for the ownership to create an experience that was one of the most family friendly venues in the entire Northeast.
For years records were broken with millions of fans coming to our stadium to view the future major leaguers of tomorrow all while getting a hot dog and watching some of the most unique, entertaining acts in all of minor league baseball.
So why did this successful business venture come to such an abrupt ending in New Britain? Here are some of the facts; leases end, relationships fade, successful businesses pay taxes, sports franchise owners make bad decisions and elected officials don’t always do what’s in the best interests of the people that they serve. Unfortunately some of those facts end up having negative consequences for many especially in this instance for the city of New Britain.
Just over eighteen months ago concerns had been raised by the ownership and management of the Rock Cats to the administration of the city of New Britain. Prior issues with the field conditions, drainage and grading had been addressed just prior to the new ownership team coming in. Issues with facility maintenance, personnel, contracts and the impending tax issue with the Town of Berlin were the topic of a meeting with both towns and the Rock Cats management. Nothing was resolved at that meeting and the issues that plagued the team continued to fester. A tax appeal was filed with the town of Berlin on behalf of the team by the city and just recently a stipulated judgement was awarded that would decrease their taxes by more than one hundred fifty thousand dollars per year from what was originally assessed.
The expiration of an agreement between the two towns is what precipitated the tax appeal and discussions with the town of Berlin were in progress to help the team even further on this issue. The Chamber was assisting the team to alleviate the tax burden because of a request by then acting General Manager Bill Dowling. Discussions were almost completed and then came the announcement that the team was relocating to the city of Hartford.
From a purely business perspective I can certainly understand why the team and its owners would look elsewhere when they were not getting much help from their landlords to renegotiate and assist them with the operations back in 2012. But for many of us here in New Britain this is a very personal issue. Assurances had been made numerous times about keeping the team in the city for the long haul which had a significant impact on the contract negotiations while I served as New Britain’s mayor. Allegations of poor field conditions as the reason to seek another venue are completely false. When concerns about drainage, lighting, sod conditions and field grading were brought up significant city money was invested to correct the problems before this last contract was negotiated. So why would a successful minor league franchise with a fantastic fan base and a great place to play want to leave?
Promises from another city to roll out the red carpet and right the perceived wrongs committed by New Britain and build a brand new state of the art stadium certainly could be lucrative to the new owners. Changing the business model from a family entertainment venue to a corporate sponsored facility might be enticing to some. But what I and others have been having a hard time understanding is why the team did not have the decency to alert the present Mayor about their upcoming announcement? Far too many people with connections to this city were involved in these secret negotiations. At the very least the Mayor of Hartford should have given Mayor Erin Stewart a phone call before he announced that he was poaching the team from New Britain. His rationale that they were going to go out of state is speculative at best. Discussions with the city of Springfield had gone on during the Joe Buzas days in New Britain and never materialized.
The fact is sports franchises never result in the economic development opportunities that owners and elected officials claim they will bring. Numerous studies have been done which proves that theory wrong. The economic impact study being utilized to promote this move is a work of fiction. If you pay a consultant enough money they will say whatever the client wants. New Britain Stadium has been successful because of its location and ability to draw patrons from so many suburban communities. Access to the highways is second to none in New Britain and that certainly was one of the reasons for the Rock Cats success over the years. Having someone with a good sense of community leading the franchise is probably the most significant reason for their success over the past 20 years. With the change in ownership its pretty apparent to me that their sense of community has not been replaced and has led the franchise into a more difficult position financially.
We at the Chamber wish them well in their new endeavor. The scheduled completion date of the facility is a very ambitious one. Unforeseen circumstances with construction and related costs are the norm these days with government sanctioned projects. Beaurocratic red tape with the myriad of state and federal approvals required will only help to delay the project even further. Continuing to operate “in secret” will certainly cause the residents in Hartford to question the motivation behind such a project. Wouldn’t it be ironic if the team needed another season to transition to their new home? I wonder what that might cost them to stay another year? The harsh reality is that some things in life are just meant to be. Let’s just hope this door closing on New Britain only leads to another one opening for a brighter future for professional sports in our city. The phones have already started ringing.