Proposal could keep hockey in Bridgeport for a decade

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BRIDGEPORT – Mayor Joe Ganim’s administration is hoping to strike a deal with the Bridgeport Islanders – formerly known as the Sound Tigers – to keep the American Hockey League team in town for another decade in exchange for upgrading $ 30 million from the Islanders. one year old arena house.

The proposal, which would settle the long-standing legal feud between landlords and tenants and modify / extend the team’s current contract to manage the municipal sports and entertainment arena, was the subject of two private city council meetings this week. . A third and perhaps a final discussion and vote are scheduled for Wednesday.

“Council members just want more information and have other questions … before they vote,” said Council President Aidee Nieves of why the closed meetings on Monday and Wednesday on the proposed arrangement were adjourned without a decision.

“I’m still thinking about some things that some people have brought to my attention,” Nieves added, although she declined to expand.

Although the terms of the revised contract, including the 10-year extension and $ 30 million site improvements, are public and have been uploaded Per the city clerk, the islanders declined to comment, citing the ongoing litigation.

However, when the two-decade-old team rebranded itself in May from the Sound Tigers to the Bridgeport Islanders after its National Hockey League affiliate, the New York Islanders, Tigers president Brent Rossi said: ” It shows our dedication and support for the Town of Bridgeport. Ultimately, we are engaged in the region. We’re not going anywhere.

Ganim’s office only said this week that it “looks forward to a mutually beneficial agreement and solution.”

But the board can insist on certain lease changes first, including increasing the hockey team‘s annual rent from $ 250,000 to $ 350,000.

“It’s a darling deal,” City Councilor Evette Brantley said of the $ 250,000 rent. “It (the rent) goes up for everyone. “

City Councilor Matthew McCarthy also thought $ 350,000 was a fair rate.

“Two hundred and fifty thousand 20 years ago, that’s probably up to $ 350,000 a year now,” he said.

Brantley is co-chair of the board’s economic development committee and McCarthy of the contracts committee. Rather than sending the pact of the arena to the usual committee reviews – which in this case could have involved contracts, economic development, various issues, and budget groups – the decision was made to have the the entire legislative body of 20 people is immediately addressing the issue.

McCarthy said the Ganim administration wanted quick approval.

“My problem is they are being pushed down our throats and they want an answer yesterday,” he said.

Councilor Scott Burns, who helps lead the budget committee, said council should avoid making a hasty decision.

“We really want to take our time, think about it, dig around and make sure we’re getting the best deal for our constituents,” Burns said.

Council members acknowledged that the city is largely responsible for the struggle with the islanders. Public tensions can be traced back to 2016, when Ganim, who ruled the city from 1991 to 2003 and was re-elected in 2015, accused the hockey team of owing $ 750,000 in rent. The Islanders countered that Bridgeport, under the original contract to operate the 10,000-seat arena, owed the team $ 837,596 for the money it invested in repairs and maintenance and carried the case before the courts.

“We own it. We were ‘slumlords,’ Councilor Ernie Newton, co-chair of the budget committee, said this week.

“We are fighting over who should fix this building. That’s us, ”said Councilor Jeanette Herron of the Markets Committee. “As a city, this is our obligation. We are the owners.

“At the end of the day, this is our building and it has been neglected,” McCarthy admitted.

The dispute escalated further when the Tigers in 2017 claimed that Ganim and the council’s partnership with developer Howard Saffan to transform the closed minor league baseball stadium adjacent to the arena into a summer concert amphitheater. violated a non-competition clause in the contract. Besides sporting events, the arena also hosts musical performances and other entertainment.

The amphitheater, which was originally scheduled to open in 2019, held its first concert on July 28.

In late 2018, in an effort to resolve the legal battle, the council changed Bridgeport’s capital budget – which primarily funds large, expensive infrastructure projects like paving roads and building schools – to include $ 15 million for arena upgrades.

According to the pending settlement, the city will go ahead with this investment, dubbed Phase 1, and will also make its “best efforts” to secure an additional $ 15 million for the Phase 2 renovations to hand over the facility. in “like new” condition.

In return, the Islanders, once Bridgeport spends $ 27.9 million, will contribute $ 3 million to this Phase 2 work – $ 2.1 million after subtracting the $ 900,000 the team has. insisted they were due for previous upgrades and maintenance.

City Councilor Maria Pereira in an email to City Hall and her fellow council members this week asked for additional information on whether the city was still repaying funds borrowed in the late 1990s to build arena, what if Bridgeport had made “pure profit” from the venue over the past five years minus “debt, maintenance (and) litigation”

Pereira also insisted on a “specific plan to raise an additional $ 12.9 million for phase 2 repairs / renovations without placing the burden on municipal taxpayers.”

Herron and McCarthy share this latter concern. McCarthy said it had been suggested that the Ganim administration might seek state and / or federal assistance.

“What happens if the state says ‘no’? McCarthy asked. “The city is on the hook.”

But Newton said “the council will never go” to spend an additional $ 15 million and that will come from other sources.

Brantley also has lingering questions about the financial implications of the settlement, but said the worst that could happen would be for the arena to shut down.

“I don’t want to see him just sit there and go to seed,” she said.

Nieves agreed, arguing that the facility, combined with the new amphitheater next door, will help Bridgeport “redefine us as a ‘city of entertainment’ that offers year-round events drawing visitors to the city center.

“And that’s important for the region,” Nieves said.


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