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ESPN Contributing $5 Million For Hartford's Front Street Development, But Will Not Open A Venue There


December 15, 2010

Ten years ago, excitement abounded for Adriaen's Landing's potential to revitalize downtown Hartford, and sports media giant ESPN got in on the ground floor, committing to the entertainment and restaurant district then called "Meeting House Square."

Today, Adriaen's Landing doesn't resemble that initial vision. A convention center was built instead of a football stadium. Plans for hundreds of apartments were downsized, and none have been built. A public "town square" with shops was scrapped.

And now, ESPN has announced what many had already expected: it won't be opening a venue at Front Street, as the entertainment district is now known. But the Bristol-based company said Wednesday it will not walk away from its commitment.

ESPN said it will contribute $5 million to the project to help attract tenants to Front Street, potentially providing subsidies for interior improvements, and making it possible for the developer to offer below-market rental rates.

"We made a commitment 11 years ago and very much believed Front Street could be an exciting place for downtown Hartford," Mike Soltys, an ESPN spokesman, said. "We needed to make a decision. It was time to fulfill our commitment. We'd love to see a thriving Front Street that will bring life to downtown Hartford."

While not having ESPN as a big-name tenant is a disappointment, city and state officials praised the contribution, saying that ESPN could just as easily have walked away. They recognized that the network, with 3,800 employees in Connecticut, is no longer focusing on entertainment venues.

"It's going to move a lot of stuff forward," David B. Panagore, the city's chief operating officer, said. "It's unusual on the good side. It shows corporate stewardship, corporate commitment."

The contribution comes a month after Front Street landed its first tenant, a movie theater chain with a pub-style restaurant. The Cinema Grill chain has leased a third of the 65,000-square-foot Front Street, whose exterior shell and streets were completed earlier this year.

The $5 million represents the amount ESPN would have invested to establish a venue at Front Street. It will be administered by the Capital City Economic Development Authority, the agency that has been overseeing the development of Adriaen's Landing and other downtown Hartford projects subsidized by the state.

James Abromaitis, the authority's executive director, said HB Nitkin, Front Street's developer, would have to seek approval from the authority to use the funds. Larger amounts would require board approval, but the authority is still establishing guidelines, he said.

ESPN said the idea to make the contribution came at the recommendation of the authority. ESPN won't have a say in how the money is spent, but did make the stipulation that it must be used for Front Street.

Nitkin didn't return a call or an e-mail request for an interview Wednesday.

Even with the boost from ESPN, Nitkin still faces the challenge of filling the remaining space at Front Street at a time when there is a glut of vacant retail space in Greater Hartford, the economic recovery is uncertain and job growth remains sluggish.

ESPN first committed to Front Street in 2000, when plans for Adriaen's Landing were the centerpiece of then-Gov. John G. Rowland's $700 million push to revitalize downtown Hartford.

But in the years that followed, ESPN has moved away from its retail and entertainment businesses, which had expanded dramatically in the years around 2000. It has closed six of its eight ESPN Zone locations ó a move hastened by the recession ó and has de-emphasized sports apparel and novelties.

Despite hopes in Hartford, ESPN never envisioned a full-fledged ESPN Zone for downtown, but did explore several alternatives even as construction on Front Street was delayed. Some of those options included a mini-ESPN Zone; a partnership with a restaurant chain; an ESPN-branded restaurant run by another operator; and even an ESPN-themed street.

But ultimately, those plans didn't mesh with the direction ESPN was taking in its retail business, said Mike Soltys, an ESPN spokesman.

ESPN, a division of The Walt Disney Co., said the idea of a contribution was worked out with the Capital City Economic Development Authority, the agency overseeing development of Adriaen's Landing and other downtown Hartford projects subsidized by the state.

The $30 million retail and entertainment district is the first phase of Front Street. A third of that figure is being paid by the state. That doesn't include another $13 million in federal subsidies for parking.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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