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February 28, 2024
Bridgeport won’t be rescued by an MLS soccer stadium

Hartford’s decline into poverty over the last 60 years hasn’t been reversed or even halted by the expensive development projects that have shuffled the city’s downtown this way and that — first Constitution Plaza, an office building complex; then the Hartford Civic Center; then the Connecticut Convention Center; and most recently a minor league baseball stadium.

Nor was New Haven’s decline into poverty over the same period reversed or halted by the New Haven Coliseum, completed downtown in 1972 and demolished in 2007.
Bridgeport also kept getting poorer after building a minor league baseball stadium downtown in 1998. Minor league baseball was not very successful there and after only 19 years the stadium was replaced with an outdoor concert amphitheater, though it is adjacent to an indoor arena built in 2001.

Last week a developer announced that he has been awarded a minor-league soccer team franchise and wants to put it in Bridgeport if city government and state government will build a stadium for him. Mayor Joe Ganim and Bridgeport’s state legislative delegation support the idea, though minor-league soccer has never been one of the struggling city’s urgent needs. The mayor and the legislators may see patronage opportunities in stadium construction and operation.

[New minor league soccer team, stadium planned for Bridgeport]

Fortunately Gov. Ned Lamont, while wishing the Bridgeport soccer idea well, did not endorse putting state government money into it. He should plainly oppose giving it any government money, state or municipal.

For Bridgeport, like Hartford and New Haven, is a ward of the state, with half of city budgets covered by state aid, and state government has both the moral and practical right to veto big city projects, as it should have vetoed the Hartford stadium project when the City Council approved it in 2014 even as the city was insolvent.

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Instead, state government eventually paid the entire bill for the Hartford stadium, as well as for many other things in Hartford, by assuming responsibility for nearly all the city’s bonded debt, around $500 million, thereby relieving the city of accountability for many years of mismanagement.

Bridgeport, Connecticut’s largest city, may resent state government’s grotesque favoritism to Hartford, especially since Bridgeport produces in state elections the same huge pluralities for the state’s Democratic regime that Hartford does. But state government should acknowledge the failure of the “bright shiny object” theory of urban management. State government also should acknowledge that the big problem of Connecticut’s cities is not the lack of some entertainment or tourist venue but the poverty of the people who live there.

For even when a city entertainment or tourist venue draws enough traffic to cover expenses, it seldom induces middle- and upper-class people to move to the city, pay property taxes and support businesses there, and send their well-parented children to school there. To the contrary, patrons of those venues just return to the suburbs when they are done with their entertainment, leaving the cities just about as poor as before, except maybe for a few restaurants.

Hartford imagines its baseball stadium as the engine of economic renewal and growth downtown, but this is wishful thinking. Many entertainment events have continued at the Civic Center and the Convention Center without doing much for growth.

What likely will bring economic growth and improve Hartford’s demographics is city government’s recent emphasis on building market-rate housing downtown.

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Connecticut’s housing shortage is so desperate that middle-class people may be more willing to consider living in a city, despite its bad demographics and neighborhood schools, if the market-rate housing is new, neighborhoods are walkable, and regional schools are accessible.

The governor knows that housing is best built, and with the least opposition, where transportation, energy, water, and sewer infrastructure is already in place, as it is in the cities. So he should tell Bridgeport that state government will help build market-rate housing there but not a soccer stadium. For once cities recover their middle class — people with some money to spend — entertainment, supermarkets, other retailing, and professional services will show up and take care of themselves.

Chris Powell has written about Connecticut government and politics for many years.