November 5, 2018
Editor's Take

UConn hockey rink investment wrong-minded

Greg Bordonaro Editor

When it comes to regional or even statewide planning, Connecticut often struggles to get a passing grade.

The latest head-scratcher is UConn's decision to build a $45 million ice hockey rink on its Storrs campus.

At a time when Hartford officials and boosters are angling for as much as $250 million from the state for an XL Center renovation, the pending school/donor-funded investment by Connecticut's flagship university, which has been complaining about state funding cuts, is misguided.

UConn men's hockey already plays the majority of its games in Hartford and would likely continue to do so even after the new Storrs arena is built. Therefore, it would be wiser for UConn to co-invest in a renovated XL Center arena.

State lawmakers, which have so far rebuffed the XL Center renovation investment given Connecticut's fiscal crisis, will likely be even less inclined to foot that bill — particularly if Republicans take control of the House, Senate or governor's mansion — if UConn is building its own new, expensive hockey arena.

A $45 million investment may be small compared to UConn's overall budget, but this has as much to do about politics and optics as it does affordability.

To be fair, this issue is not black and white and we've known about the project for years. In 2012, UConn hockey announced it would join the high-profile Hockey East Association. As a result, UConn agreed to replace its current 1,650-seat arena — the Freitas Ice Forum — because it doesn't meet Hockey East standards, which require all teams to have an on-campus rink with at least 4,000 seats.

The conference granted UConn a waiver to build a smaller on-campus venue partly because the school draws strong attendance at the XL Center. (The new arena is slated to have 2,500 to 3,500 seats.)

However, UConn and the state should have pushed harder to scrap the on-campus arena requirement altogether, and instead committed to renovating the XL Center into a top college hockey venue. UConn's co-investment in the XL Center could make it more palatable for lawmakers to finance a large-scale renovation.

And if that didn't satisfy Hockey East's overlords, maybe joining the conference wasn't the right decision in the first place.

UConn's argument is that joining Hockey East, which includes hockey heavyweights like Boston College and Boston University, is a boost for the school and helps attract outside donor investment.

That may be true. In fact, UConn has a tentative $6 million donor commitment to help repay a temporary loan to build the arena and others are interested in donating when the rink deal is finalized, a school official said. (In terms of financing the project, UConn would invest 49 percent equity in the arena, which would be built by a private developer. Tax-exempt bonds, which UConn would repay over time, would cover the remaining price tag. Included in the equity investment is $10 million the school earned from recent property sales.)

Meantime, Michael Freimuth, executive director of the Capital Region Development Authority, which is the chief entity vouching for the XL Center renovation funding, says there are real scheduling concerns the new arena would help alleviate.

"Because the playoff schedules are unpredictable and the XL can be booked, often years in advance, it would be unfair if UConn couldn't have a home playoff date if earned and if XL was unavailable on short late season notice," he said.

He added that CRDA's working agreement with UConn for a "new XL" is to have 30 games across the three sports (women's and men's basketball and men's hockey), which is roughly where we are now.

Test case

When I think of UConn's hockey investment I can't help but draw parallels to the school's football program.

The state made a huge investment at the turn of the century to build a $90 million stadium in East Hartford for UConn football, which was transitioning from Division I-AA to Division I-A (now called the Football Bowl Subdivision), the highest-profile league of college athletics' most lucrative sport.

That was followed up by a multimillion-dollar investment in a new practice facility in Storrs.

How have things turned out since then? Well, the team showed promise for a short stretch, sharing a Big East championship in 2010 and making it to a Fiesta Bowl game that same season. Since then, the Big East dismantled, UConn joined a subpar American Athletic Conference (largely because major college football conferences rebuffed the school's program) and the team is now barely beating second-tier schools in front of largely empty seats.

Meantime, Rentschler Field, which has seen its UConn football revenues and attendance decline in recent years, remains an underutilized asset.

I'm not saying UConn hockey or the Storrs arena are headed toward a similar fate (UConn says multiple other revenue-generating uses are planned for the facility). But Connecticut and its top state university should not invest in two separate facilities for the partial benefit of a college hockey team, even if being in the Hockey East conference means the school can attract more donor funds.

How about convincing those donors to help rebuild XL Center instead?

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