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.
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"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?"