Connecticut’s Supreme Court has unanimously ruled (5-0) to have a new trial between the City of Hartford and the original developers of Dunkin’ Donuts Park. The minor league Yard Goats baseball home field, which is adjacent to I-84 and downtown Hartford, did not open until spring 2017 because of lawsuits, contract disputes, and construction delays.
Since the ballpark was not built on schedule, a jury found developers Centerplan Construction Company and DoNo Hartford responsible for cost overruns, delays and financial damages. But in the court appeal, Centerplan argued that jurors did not receive all the details about the court case including adjusted contracts and late design changes by the City of Hartford’s architects.
According to the developer’s lawyer, Louis Pepe, the architect firm was hired by the city before the contracts began with Centerplan. Hartford “failed” to meet their obligations before terminating the contract.
For years, Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin has been steadfast that the city was not at fault for construction delays and contract disputes. In fact, he claimed that if the city did not fire Centerplan, there wouldn’t have been a completed baseball park with a minor league team.
“The problem was also extraordinarily poor workmanship and massive mistakes, that led to [Centerplan’s] insurance company having to spend nearly $40 million to fix their mistakes,” said Bronin on NBC-30 last week.
With a new court trial though, the City of Hartford could be responsible and liable for terminating the contract for constructing the ballpark. This could be especially costly, even tens of millions of dollars in damages.
In addition, the area surrounding the ballpark is on the heels of additional redevelopment. One of the four parcels has been developed for mixed-use development by another Connecticut developer, but those agreements may also be contested. Interestingly, there are planned ribbon cuttings and future plans for redevelopment just as the court trial will begin again.
The back and forth between city officials and developers were significant concerns early on. For example, in late 2015, developers said they did not have control over stadium design there were various changes by city and baseball team officials. This led to increasing the ballpark’s budget and extending the construction deadline. But the city terminated the contract and demanded developers to pay damages, while Centerplan countersued Hartford.
Legal and contract disputes are a constant issue in economic development. Cities are especially caught in the middle of entertainment and tourism development projects because many officials envision their municipalities gaining notoriety rather than losing taxpayers’ money.
As a sports enthusiast and urbanist, I’ll cheer on a great downtown turnaround but entertainment development projects often come with strings attached. Washington, D.C.’s Capital One Arena and Baltimore’s Camden Yards, for example, led to economic growth within a short time span but gentrification became a significant concern since many residents and neighborhood businesses were ultimately displaced. The National Hockey League’s New Jersey Devils Newark’s Prudential Center was also ensnarled in lawsuits especially since there was little municipal council oversight. More recently, New York’s agreement for the National Football League’s Buffalo Bills stadium comes with a $1.4 billion price tag based on $850 million of taxpayer money.
For conference discussions and book chapters, I have studied downtown development that centered on publicly financed sports complexes. This includeed a paper that I helped co-author on the Dunkin’ Donuts park as it was being constructed in 2015. I am wary of such projects because it often – but not always – leads to mismanagement, unexpected costs, and delays.
Hartford’s ongoing court case should serve as a reminder to officials and taxpayers that projects like Dunkin’ Donuts ballpark come with additional expenses, contract disputes, lengthy lawsuits and a state Supreme Court appeal. As Connecticut residents, we should all be aware of this lesson and we must pay attention to what happens next with this lawsuit and hold our elected officials accountable.
Jonathan L. Wharton, Ph.D. is the School of Graduate and Professional Studies associate dean and teaches political science and urban affairs at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven.