HARTFORD — More than a year of secret talks culminated Wednesday on the steps of city hall as the mayor and the owner of the New Britain Rock Cats announced a deal to bring the minor league baseball team to Hartford.
What had been whispered by sources for days was proclaimed at high noon by Mayor Pedro Segarra: The city has agreed to build a $60 million stadium on two lots at 1214 Main St. — just north of downtown and near two major highways — and lease it for 25 years to the Double A Eastern League affiliate of the Minnesota Twins.
The deal has not yet been signed, but Segarra and a smiling array of officials used the landmark Main Street municipal building as their backdrop to welcome Rock Cats owner Josh Solomon and two of his red-shirted players to the city.
"This stadium will greatly expand our central business district and will also enable us to reconnect with north Hartford — a community that greatly needs an infusion of jobs and opportunities," Segarra said, providing official confirmation of what The Courant had disclosed Monday.
The project still needs the approval of the city council, although its members said Wednesday that the plan has overwhelming support.
The 220,000-square-foot ballpark would seat more than 9,000 spectators. Construction is expected to be completed on April 1, 2016, and a grand opening is planned for April 7, 2016, Segarra said.
The Rock Cats would pay the city about $500,000 a year. The franchise agreed to sign a lease with the city in exchange for Hartford's providing the new stadium. The team's current $110,000-a-year lease with the city of New Britain runs through Dec. 31, 2015.
The city's debt payments on bonding for the stadium would be $1.5 million to $2 million in 2017 and about $4.3 million in subsequent years, Segarra said.
Segarra said that the Rock Cats began talking to city officials a year and a half ago.
"We were aware the Rock Cats were looking for a different venue," he said. "This team transfer is intended to prevent the Rock Cats from leaving the state of Connecticut."
Sources said earlier this week that the team had been considering a move to Springfield.
"We explored opportunities both within the state of Connecticut and outside of Connecticut, and I think we wanted to stay in Hartford County," Solomon, the team owner, said Wednesday. "We're thrilled to be able to be back in the capital city."
Asked why the team was leaving New Britain, Solomon said: "We've had a great relationship with the city of New Britain. We have been there for 20 years. … We explored our opportunities, and the ability to bring baseball to the capital city was just a tremendous opportunity that we couldn't pass on.
"The ability to provide our fans with a state-of-the-art facility at the junction of two major highways in downtown Hartford was something that we couldn't pass up."
The upbeat atmosphere in Hartford contrasted sharply with the mood about 15 miles to the west in New Britain.
Mayor Erin Stewart said that she was feeling "betrayal, hurt and anger" after learning that Solomon had secretly been talking with Hartford officials long before she took office seven months ago — all the while, she said, acting as if the team was committed to the city and "part of the New Britain family."
However, despite "all that anger for being basically being misled by the Rock Cats … I have a newfound confidence," she said after watching the televised press conference.
"Nothing's been signed," she said.
"I question the city of Hartford's ability to finance the project. Like many other cities and towns across the state, Hartford is struggling, just as New Britain is, with deficits and budget problems. How they can justify this in such difficult times?"
She said she has asked Solomon — who finally returned her phone call about 9 p.m. on the eve of the press conference — to have the courtesy to "come to my office, meet with me face to face, and tell me why you are leaving New Britain." She said she'll try to do "whatever it takes" to keep the team in the city.
"New Britain Stadium is the focal point for baseball in the central Connecticut region. … Baseball is a part of the Hardware City. It always will be," she said. "I am not willing to let that go very lightly."
Even if the Rock Cats leave, Stewart said, she's committed to keeping baseball in her city.
"Whether it's the Rock Cats or ... another franchise… we will certainly continue to have baseball at New Britain Stadium and will explore all options that are available to the city … just as the Rock Cats started to explore theirs."
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy appeared at an unrelated press conference at a New Britain manufacturing company Wednesday and insisted that his office had nothing to do with the Hartford deal. He said he hadn't been approached for tax incentives, state bonding or other aid — but he still backed away from several opportunities to rule out the possibility of state assistance in the future.
"We are not involved. I have not seen the proposal," Malloy said. "I did not engage in discussions with the team management, team ownership or Hartford."
Fielding reporters' questions, Malloy appeared uneasy about the topic.
"This is not a position that I'd want to put myself in to begin with," Malloy said. "If you're asking me whether I'm anxious to play a role in a battle between New Britain and Hartford, I am not — nor am I, nor have I played a role in bringing this about."
"I've heard inklings about this for the last three years and particularly since the team changed hands," he said. "The Rock Cats have done pretty well by New Britain. New Britain has done well by them. From what I understand, Hartford is making it clear that this is their own money (in the proposal)."
Stewart said afterward that she was pleased to hear that Malloy's office was not involved in arranging the deal and isn't trying to line up financing for it.
But she said that relations between New Britain and Hartford are now strained, especially because Segarra didn't give her any heads-up that a deal was being worked out — even after it was reported by the media.
"I thought we had a great sister city relationship. I'd have had the common courtesy to call if it had been the other way around," she said.
She said she doesn't know when she'll finally get to talk in person with Solomon. "He said the next time he's in town he'll call," she said.
She said "I certainly don't know" if she'll believe what Solomon might tell her in the future. "But, for the betterment of entertainment and baseball, and giving families a fun place to go, I will do what it takes to maintain a relationship with them, and I will certainly continue to be open with them and have an honest dialogue, on my side."
When asked if the financially struggling city would consider expanding the nearly 6,200-seat stadium to 9,000 seats to keep the Rock Cats, Stewart replied, "no." But she added that the team has recently set attendance records at the stadium as it is, and is considered one of the league's success stories.
The Rock Cats pay New Britain $109,000 a year for use of the stadium, which the city maintains. The Rock Cats also pay a share of the utilities, and the city gets proceeds from the $5-per-car game day parking. The team would have to notify New Britain by March 2015 if it wants to leave in 2016, she said.
Not everyone was sure that the move would generate much revenue for Hartford.
"They are going to have debt service somewhere between $2 million to $3 million a year and are going to get half a million back in rent," said Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College who has written books about the sports industry. "If this is being done in the name of providing wholesome family entertainment, that's fine. If they're actually thinking this is a revitalization project, there are a lot better ways to spend $60 million."
"It's not a development tool. What is generally happening is people from the community are spending money at the ballpark instead of other places. It doesn't tend to generate new revenue for the area."
Coleman B. Levy, former co-owner of the Rock Cats, said that the new baseball stadium would offer clear benefits to the Rock Cats, including a state-of-the-art ball field and a broader market in the state's capital city.
The stadium also would be a good amenity to offer residents and visitors, a complement to museums, theaters and the XL Center, Levy said.
The question that arises, he said, is whether the city can afford to spend $60 million on a venue that isn't likely to create much of an economic ripple into the rest of the city.
"In baseball, part of the experience is eating at the park," Levy said. "If they are eating at the park, they aren't eating at restaurants in the city."
Minor league baseball was last played in Hartford in 1952. The then-Boston Braves had an affiliate, the Hartford Chiefs, who played at Bulkeley Stadium in the South End. When the Braves moved to Milwaukee in 1953, the farm team also moved.
The Eastern League has had franchises in Waterbury, West Haven, Bristol, New Haven and Norwich, but by far the most successful and enduring one has been in New Britain.
The Red Sox moved their farm team from Bristol to New Britain in 1983. Joe Buzas, a longtime minor league owner, had control of the team until 1999. New Britain Stadium opened in 1996 and seats 6,146.
When a group led by Bill Dowling bought the franchise in 2000, the team found new life. It has set attendance records nearly every year.
Dowling's affiliation with the team ended this spring. New Britain Double Play LLC, led by Solomon and his siblings, Jim Solomon and Jennifer Goorno, assumed control of the franchise from Dowling.
Attendance has never been a problem in New Britain.
The Rock Cats just drew more than 21,000 to New Britain Stadium this past weekend, a team record for a three-game series.
A series of proposals — including one to purchase a lot near Main and Trumbull streets for $1.7 million — will be considered by the Hartford council on Monday. The ball park will be built on about 2.9 acres owned by the city and another 2 acres that the city is looking to acquire from Rensselaer Hartford Graduate Center.
The plan would bring 600 full-time jobs to Hartford and 900 construction jobs, Segarra said.
Announcement of the move prompted an immediate press release from U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty, the first-term Democratic congresswoman who represents New Britain as part of the 5th District.
"For twenty years, families have come to New Britain Stadium to watch the Rock Cats," Esty said in the emailed statement. "We are proud of our team and what it brings to our community. The Rock Cats should stay at home in New Britain."
Asked about Esty's release, U.S. Rep. John Larson, D-1st District, said: "I represent Hartford. I represent the capital city of which I am very supportive. I also represent the people of Connecticut. I am skeptical when it comes to franchises playing municipalities against one another and hope all parties involved can come together and do what's in the best interests of the people of Connecticut."
Courant staff writers Brian Dowling and Ken Gosselin contributed to this story.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun