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Hartford, Conn., Bets On Baseball To Revive Ailing Economy


Hartford, Conn., is betting on baseball. It's a city that used to be rich with a big insurance industry, but now it has a poverty problem. Hartford hopes Minor League Baseball and a brand-new stadium will help undo years of neglect. It's hardly the first city to invest in professional sports. And as always, the question is will it work? Jeff Cohen of member station WNPR reports.

JEFF COHEN: Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra is standing at a construction site next to one of the city's poorest neighborhoods. All around him is a sea of parking lots that's been here as long as he can remember. But give it time, he says. An excavator is digging out home plate, and the hope is that the grass they'll put down in the fall will be green by April's opening day.

PEDRO SEGARRA: When all this is all built, you're really not going to know where you are, but you'll be in Hartford, and proudly so.

COHEN: Hartford is spending $56 million on a ballpark for a team called the Hartford Yard Goats, a name that doesn't have much to do with Hartford and has everything to do with marketing a team to kids who want to come to the games and buy a hat with a goat on it. Meanwhile, the city has also spearheaded a $300 million, privately-financed housing, retail and supermarket project to surround the ballpark. Mayor Segarra says that's what happens when you leverage public money.

SEGARRA: Once we had the stadium announcement, the development piece came together, and we had a lot more interest from developers to want to invest in this area.

COHEN: But wherever wealthy sports franchise owners get cash-strapped cities to build them a new gem, there's always the question of whether all of the investment will pay off for the people paying the bills. In Hartford, that question's acute. On the one hand, this is the state capital, with statewide importance. The team is moving from New Britain, a city just a few miles away. Its leaders say Hartford poached their team. But club owner Josh Solomon says a city stadium will draw more fans than a suburban one.

JOSH SOLOMON: The ability for folks to come from work, directly walk over, grab a beer or something on the way over, come into the ballpark, enjoy it while just walking here - it'll be a part of the fabric of downtown Hartford.

COHEN: But Shawn Wooden is also counting on a local impact. He's Hartford's city council president. This is where he grew up. He says people in this neighborhood need a boost.

SHAWN WOODEN: Just walk down North Main Street - 2, 3 o'clock on any weekday afternoon - and see the number of adults, when everybody should be working, with no economic activity being generated.

COHEN: So he looks around and sees construction jobs, stadium jobs and investment that will bring jobs. But Andrew Zimbalist isn't so sure.

ANDREW ZIMBALIST: The promoters always talk about it as the best thing since sliced bread for the local economy, and that's not true.

COHEN: Zimbalist is a professor of economics at Smith College in Northampton, Mass. He says the research shows that public stadiums by themselves typically don't generate much economic growth, if any. One recent study from researchers at Lake Forest College in Illinois and Holy Cross in Massachusetts concludes this way - sports may make a city happy, but they're unlikely to make a city rich. And Zimbalist says that's how this should be sold.

ZIMBALIST: Here's an activity, a wholesome, summertime activity that the community can enjoy, that can create a greater sense of community. This can be a plus. And I think that that's the most honest way to sell one of these ventures.

COHEN: And even if the numbers don't pan out, boosters are saying it's the kind of plus that Hartford needs. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Cohen. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jeff Cohen started in newspapers in 2001 and joined Connecticut Public in 2010, where he worked as a reporter and fill-in host. In 2017, he was named news director.
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