Sad Coliseum saga exemplifies city’s shift to arts

New Haven may be known as the Elm City, but it could also be known as the Sports City.

According to legend, the game of Frisbee began when Yale students tossed empty Frisbie Pie Company plates on the New Haven Green. And in 1879, Walter Camp 1878, then Yale’s football captain, developed the modern game of football.

In fact, as football grew in popularity, the Yale Bowl became an integral part of the city; planners of New Haven’s trolley system made sure to include a spur to the Bowl. Even New Haven’s last trolley, in 1948, traveled to the Bowl. But like much of New Haven, the Bowl’s concrete began to decay.

Between 1950 and 1970, New Haven underwent a massive urban renewal effort under the direction of Mayor Richard Lee. During Lee’s eight terms as mayor, public and private entities funneled over $300 million into construction projects.

As expected for a city steeped in sports history, athletics factored into the redevelopment of downtown. But the failure of projects such as the New Haven Coliseum have driven city administrators to focus on the arts as downtown’s primary economic stimulus.

Doomed at birth

Since 1927, the New Haven Arena had brought top shows, concerts, wrestling, minor league ice hockey and other entertainment to the Elm City. But by the late 1960s, politicians wanted to upgrade to a modern facility, leading to the opening of the Veterans Memorial Coliseum in 1971. The New Haven Arena was demolished in 1972, and the property now contains New Haven’s Federal Bureau of Investigation 3-acre complex.

From the beginning, the Coliseum’s strategic placement at the Oak Street Connector — the planned gateway to downtown — backfired, as the building added to the dark and drab appearance of New Haven’s skyline.

“It really was not a viable complex from the beginning,” said Alan Sack, the director of the Management of Sports Industries Program at the University of New Haven’s business school. “I’d like to go back and find the people who put it up and put them in stocks and pillories on the New Haven Green.”

But the building’s modern interior helped attract top shows and concerts to New Haven, and minor league ice hockey found a new home. But once the inside decayed along with the outmoded exterior, the Coliseum was doomed.

This spring, city officials once again determined it was time to demolish New Haven’s primary sports venue. But this time, there is no replacement waiting in the wings.

The Coliseum officially closed on Aug. 31; the last event, on Aug. 26, was part of the World Wrestling Entertainment’s current tour. The Coliseum’s actual demolition is expected to take place after New Year’s Day.

In its place, city economic officials are considering both a new home for the Long Wharf Theatre and a conference center that could host trade shows that once thrived at the Coliseum. Both proposals represent New Haven’s shift from sports to the arts as an economic catalyst for downtown.

“Major sporting venues in downtown areas can often be a waste of precious land that is better for residential and commercial uses,” said Scott Healy, the director of the Town Green Special Services district and an urban planner. “In a city like New Haven that’s so small, would a new arena be a wise use of finite space?”

The Coliseum’s destruction has become a sensitive issue for city officials. New Haven Economic Development Administrator Henry Fernandez has repeatedly declined to discuss the Coliseum project.

Replacing the 4.5-acre sports facility with primarily arts uses would represent a shift in New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr.’s economic development philosophy over his five terms at the city’s reins, from focusing on sports and the expansive Galleria at Long Wharf mall project.

So far, experts think DeStefano’s artistic program is working.

“I certainly do not think that downtown sports are the answer for New Haven,” said Yale School of Management professor Douglas Rae, an expert in urban revitalization. “The arts have worked great and proved extremely cost effective.”

The numbers

Connecticut used to have just a few arenas, the principle ones being the Coliseum and the Hartford Civic Center. But the more modern facilities that sprang up across the state in the last decade hurt the Coliseum’s competitiveness.

In addition to Bridgeport’s new Arena at Harbor Yard, the Mohegan Sun Resort Casino in Uncasville opened the 10,000-seat Mohegan Sun Arena last November. Foxwoods Resort Casino in Ledyard has two small theaters that seat 3,000 and 1,700, respectively.

Clear Channel Entertainment also runs Hartford’s Meadows Music Centre and Wallingford’s Oakdale Theatre. The Meadows opened in 1995 and can hold 25,900. The Oakdale was renovated in 1998 and now seats 4,800.

These newer, upgraded venues severely hurt New Haven’s ability to attract shows. According to the financial impact analysis conducted by New Haven, the Coliseum’s events fell from 152 in 1989 to just 71 in 2000.

But city administrators did not give up so easily. In 1999, the city hired SMG, a firm that runs hundreds of arenas nationwide, to give the Coliseum a boost. SMG and Clear Channel Entertainment compete in the arena market across the United States. Combined with the modest renovation, SMG increased the Coliseum’s events to 113 in 2002.

Sports teams such as minor league hockey’s New Haven Knights and arenafootball2′s New Haven Ninjas arrived — following the failure of previous minor league hockey teams — but the added cost of bringing events to a rundown building became too expensive.

City engineers estimate that renovating the Coliseum so it could compete with the state’s more modern arenas would cost $30 million. The demolition will cost about a third as much, or roughly $10 million. City officials hope the state will cover the demolition cost.

According to the city’s study, shutting the Coliseum will save the city $28.6 million.

But until 2011, the city will continue to pay $1.9 million annually on bonds that were issued in 1971 to pay for the Coliseum’s construction. Of the approximately $1 million the city receives annually from the state’s hotel tax, 75 percent was allocated to the Coliseum’s operations. The rest went to the city’s Visitor’s and Convention Bureau. Officials are uncertain where the Coliseum’s share will now go, although a new conference center would likely receive much of the budget.

Bridgeport

Urban planners point to Baltimore, Cleveland and Denver as cities where large stadium projects positively affected the surrounding districts economically. But the story in smaller cities can be far different.

“Connecticut has no single dominant city,” Healy said. “Instead, there are four or five competing municipalities. And the television market does not dictate a major sports franchise.”

The state’s only major sports team, the National Hockey League’s Hartford Whalers, left for North Carolina in 1997. The National Football League’s New England Patriots toyed with moving to Hartford before constructing a new stadium in Foxboro, Mass.

That leaves a handful of cities vying for minor league sports franchises. Bridgeport, most notably, has turned to athletics as a focus for urban revitalization.

Several industrial firms left the Park City in the 1980s, leaving behind numerous abandoned properties. One particular site, the former Jenkins Valve Company, sat at the city’s main gateway, similar to the Coliseum’s placement off the interstate in New Haven. In 1990, Bridgeport’s financial situation became so desperate that the city was forced to declare bankruptcy.

But in 1998, Bridgeport opened the $21 million Ballpark at Harbor Yard on the 18-acre Jenkins Valve brownfield, and the Park City became the Ballpark City. Currently, the Bridgeport Bluefish independent league baseball team plays at the 5,500-seat stadium, averaging almost 4,000 fans each game. But attendance has fallen over the past two summers.

“Bridgeport had success initially with its baseball team,” Rae said. “But minor league baseball is marginal everywhere.”

The city added the 10,000-seat Arena at Harbor Yard last October. The Bridgeport Sound Tigers, a minor league hockey team, uses the facility.

“It’s working for what it was designed to be,” said Joe Gresko, a spokesman for the city of Bridgeport. “We realized that if we built an arena, it wasn’t going to be the silver bullet to solve all our problems.”

In addition to the ballpark and arena, Bridgeport’s Regional Sports and Entertainment Complex also includes a 3,000-seat ice rink, a baseball memorabilia museum, restaurants and a parking garage. Even a major league lacrosse team, the Bridgeport Barrage, calls the Park City home.

“We got a bad rap in the early ’90s,” Gresko said. “Now, it’s the same way people are going to come in and have a good experience and look at Bridgeport more positively. We’re arguably the sports and entertainment center of Connecticut.”

But several studies over the past decade question the positive economic impact athletic complexes were once thought to have on cities.

“The consensus opinion nationally is that stadium projects are not large economic stimuli to downtowns,” Rae said.

The Elm City

Like Bridgeport, New Haven also pursued sports in the early 1990s. The world-class Connecticut Tennis Center, completed in 1992, is the home of the annual Pilot Pen Tennis Tournament. The New Haven Ravens, a minor league baseball team, arrived at a renovated Yale Field in 1994.

But while these modern sports complexes lie near the West Haven border, the Coliseum crumbles downtown. And the financial struggles of the Ravens and the tennis tournament have led politicians to abandon sports teams in their downtown renovation plans.

Even the Coliseum’s main tenant, the Knights minor league hockey team, was unwilling to commit to another season after rocky ticket sales. The Ninjas survived for just one season.

“New Haven does not have a great history of supporting its minor league teams,” Healy said.

The Pilot Pen Tennis Tournament, the largest all-women’s event in the world, brings over 90,000 people each summer to New Haven. But during the other 50 weeks of the year, the massive tennis center goes unused.

“There are investments that cities make that don’t bring in economic development in the short run,” Sack said. “If you put them all together, these things create a certain atmosphere.”

The tennis tournament may not infuse tremendous economic activity into New Haven, but it has helped increase the city’s image across the Northeast. Bridgeport’s deliberate placement of its sports complex alongside Interstate 95 has attracted the attention of many travelers.

“If you’re talking about branding a city, and giving a recognizable name to a city, then the tennis tournament is very successful,” Sack said. “I can not tell you how many people who have driven up the highway and commented on Bridgeport’s stadium.”

But instead of using sports as a way to bolster the city’s image, New Haven administrators have turned toward the arts as a way to brand the Elm City.

The city’s annual International Festival of Arts and Ideas began in 1996 and has blossomed into the state’s primary cultural event of the summer. And situating the Long Wharf Theatre downtown would augment the theater district that runs west along Chapel Street.

Healy said the theater can form a symbiotic relationship with its surroundings that sports complexes often lack, bolstering pedestrian traffic into nearby storefronts.

“Most sporting venues are very self-contained, with hot dog vendors and food within,” Healy said. “Theater can attract an audience that’s going to come for the whole deal.”

The Arts and Ideas festival recently earned New Haven the nickname of “Connecticut’s center for the arts.” But the arts have a long history in New Haven. The Shubert Theater opened in 1914 and went on to premier “My Fair Lady,” “Oklahoma” and the “Sound of Music” before they went to Broadway. The annual New Haven Jazz Festival, formed in 1982, has attracted top musicians from around the globe.

“You have to play to your strengths rather than trying to invent something new,” Healy said. “The arts are where New Haven’s comparative advantage lies.”

The New Haven Coliseum opened in 1971 and officially closed its doors on Aug. 31. It is expected to be demolished after New Year’s Day, and city officials are considering replacing it with the Long Wharf Theatre, as downtown’s focus moves toward arts.
Kerry Shapleigh
The New Haven Coliseum opened in 1971 and officially closed its doors on Aug. 31. It is expected to be demolished after New Year’s Day, and city officials are considering replacing it with the Long Wharf Theatre, as downtown’s focus moves toward arts.

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