The long-awaited renovation of Dillon Stadium may happen soon. Three bidders have submitted proposals to the city of Hartford and the Capital Region Development Authority for a shot at revamping the 80-year-old facility located in Colt Park.
The proposals come from—Data-Mail President Bruce Mandell, Hartford City FC owner Aaron Sarwar, and Civic Mind Studios founder TJ Clynch.
The last pro soccer team that actually played within the city limits — the Hartford Bicentennials — played at Dillon Stadium in the 1970s. The city’s most recent plans for the stadium also involved a soccer-specific rebuild, but it stalled in 2015 when its partners in the deal got wrapped up in a federal criminal investigation.
Now the winner of the latest round of bidding may be the one with the best connection to a professional soccer league.
Mandell, the president of a Newington-based direct mail company called Data-Mail, is one of the bidders. His proposal includes a new team that’s connected to the United Soccer League. Mandell said he’s been talking to the league for some time and met with officials in Tampa 18 months ago.
“The USL’s vision of being the second-division professional league in the United States made sense,” Mandell said.
Major League Soccer sits at the top of the ladder in the U.S. game. Both the USL and North American Soccer League were recognized in 2017 as the second-tier, but that will change next year. The NASL will drop down below the USL.
“They’re not competing against the MLS,” Mandell said. “Competitively, I didn’t see the NASL as being a league that was going to really be a second-division league.”
Another potential attraction of Mandell’s Hartford team is what he calls “exciting dialogue” with the MLS’s New England Revolution, based out of Foxborough, Massachusetts.
“They’ve been very supportive of our concept of bringing a USL team to Hartford,” Mandell said. “We’ve both envisioned the potential for a strong affiliation partnership.”
Michael Freimuth runs the CRDA. His group is in charge of making a recommendation for the city on which of the three bids to pick. Freimuth also sees the rationale behind attracting a USL team.
“The interesting thing about the USL is if it has an affiliation with Major League Soccer than those who really follow soccer maybe find more appeal to it than not,” Freimuth said.
The USL confirmed to WNPR that it is interested in Mandell’s “Hartford Sports Group” and supports its proposal.
“It’s not only creating a great club, a great home for a USL club, but it’s enhancing a community asset that could be valuable and contribute to the future growth of Hartford,” said Lenny Santiago, the president of marketing and communications for the USL.
While Mandell’s group is aligned with the USL, Freimuth said Sarwar’s bid may go with the NASL instead.
“They have both indicated to us that they have been talking to these leagues over the last four or five months,” Freimuth said.
Rishi Sehgal, the NASL’s commissioner, said through email that he believes Hartford City FC is a fit for the NASL and supports the team’s efforts to revitalize Dillon Stadium.
"Hartford City FC is one of a number of clubs that we've had recent discussions with, but we're not in a position, at this time, to make any announcements," he added.
But while Mandell’s bid seems to involve the more attractive league, money could be a sticking point. This is a city, after all, that said it may go bankrupt as soon as November and faced a storm of criticism when it publicly financed Dunkin’ Donuts Park for Minor League Baseball’s Hartford Yard Goats.
Sarwar has pledged to put $400,000 of his own money into improving the stadium and said he’s confident of his chances to win the Dillon bid because he’s not asking for public assistance. Meanwhile, Mandell said he is committing between $7 million and $10 million in private money, but that’s to operate the team.
“In order to get that stadium to be usable again in any professional way, there’s a significant public investment that needs to be made,” Mandell said.
The wildcard in all of this is the third bidder, Clynch, who was prematurely chosen by the city a few years back to redevelop Dillon. Clynch is still in the middle of an ongoing legal battle with the city of Hartford over that previous bid.
Clynch’s new proposal is not as soccer-specific as the other two because he said he doesn’t believe in a single-user led group. His plan for Dillon is essentially the same as it was before the city terminated the agreement: to develop the area for communal purposes.
“A team-led development process would be inherently self-serving and ultimately limit the venue’s potential to serve our community,” Clynch said.
It should be noted that Clynch and his company did some consulting work for WNPR’s parent company, Connecticut Public Broadcasting Network, in 2015.
Freimuth said he hopes the CRDA has a recommendation for the city by Thanksgiving.