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Bridgeport renews investment in arena

January 4, 2019

BRIDGEPORT — Think of it as a $15 million goodwill gesture.

In the final weeks of 2018, the City Council amended Bridgeport’s capital budget — which mainly funds large, costly infrastructure projects like road paving and school construction — to include a $15 million investment in Bridgeport’s aging entertainment and sports arena.

Two-thirds of that could be borrowed this year, with the remaining $5 million set aside for 2020.

That council vote is a portent of a possible 2019 truce in the contentious relationship between Mayor Joe Ganim’s administration and the arena tenant Sound Tigers hockey team, which operates the facility with Harbor Yard Sports and Entertainment LLC.

“It’s a good sign,” said council President Aidee Nieves. “They’re on the path to getting it resolved.”

The arena was constructed 20 years ago during Ganim’s first administration, which began in 1991 and ended in 2003. When voters returned the former mayor to office in 2015, one of the first things he did was accuse the Tigers of owing back rent.

The Tigers countered that the city was not maintaining the arena. The building was initially part of the federal pay-to-play corruption case that toppled Ganim in 2003, but ultimately was not part of his jury conviction.

Then in 2018, the hockey team threatened to terminate its contract when Ganim and the council struck a deal with ex-Tigers’ president Howard Saffan to turn the shuttered Bridgeport Bluefish baseball stadium next door into an outdoor concert amphitheater.

And just about a year ago, City Hall and the Sound Tigers were again scrapping, this time over parking ahead of popular actor and comedian Kevin Hart’s appearance.

In an effort to avoid a court battle, the sides have for months been trying to settle their differences through arbitration. The city’s willingness to invest $15 million to replace the arena’s roof and heating, ventilation and air conditioning is the first public indication that things are moving in a positive direction.

“It’s a good sign for the arena and city to be working together to bring the venue to modern day standards,” said Saffan, who has been steadily transforming the ex-home of the Bluefish into an amphitheater that could open late this summer.

The Tigers had alleged that Saffan’s project violated the team’s contract with Bridgeport because it would be a competing venue.

Saffan, when asked if that issue has been settled, said of the arena, “We’re partners together in the entertainment district and we look forward to a bright future for both venues.”

Sound Tigers President Michael Picker could not be reached for comment.

The Tigers’ current contract with Bridgeport expires in October 2021, but the team has an option to renew for 10 years. Ganim used the expiration of the Blue Fish’s contract in 2017 to solicit other tenants for the city-owned baseball stadium, resulting in Saffan’s amphitheater proposal.

City Councilman Kyle Langan, an occasional Ganim critic, said he supported the $15 million investment in the arena because he understood that it would keep the Sound Tigers in Bridgeport for several more years.

“I don’t want to lose a jewel from the crown of our city,” Langan said. “We want to build our sports and entertainment to attract more people to the city.”

Councilwoman Maria Zambrano Viggiano, a Budget Committee co-chair, said whatever the status of the tensions between City Hall and the Sound Tigers, the arena needs work.

“Buildings get built and if you don’t rehabilitate or renovate them it becomes harder to take care of the buildings. It becomes more expensive,” Viggiano said. “(And) if you want to continue to raise the profile for Bridgeport as an urban center people are excited to come to, we need to be able to maintain the facility. Nobody wants to come to an event or concert in a venue that’s not up to par.”

A just-concluded court case highlighted some of the infrastructure issues at the arena. In late December, following about three hours of deliberation, a Superior Court jury found Harbor Yard Sports & Entertainment negligent in causing the injuries of a boy, now 13, who was injured while attending a hockey game in 2013 after a railing he was leaning on gave way.

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