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Small cities lure big teams to lift pride

With the impending arrival of the New England Patriots pro football team, the city of Hartford, Conn., has just become the envy of small-town boosters and civic leaders around America.

In a deal announced last week, the Patriots will move from the outskirts of Boston to Hartford in the fall of 2001. Soon this dilapidated city, which until a few months ago had a boarded-up skyscraper in its midst, will be a peer with New York, Dallas, San Francisco, and all the other National Football League host cities.

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In fact, like Hartford, a growing number of smaller US cities are wooing pro sports teams to hike up their national standing. And unlike some big cities such as Boston and Los Angeles, they're willing to shell out big money to get them.

Whether a pro team actually brings big economic benefit is hotly contested, but for boosters of the strategy, it's the pride, prestige, and nationwide attention that are invaluable.

Take that granddaddy of all small cities with a big team - Green Bay, Wis. "They're our Eiffel Tower," boasts Mayor Paul Jadin about the Packers. "Without them we'd be just another town of 100,000."

Nashville, Tenn., which recently swiped pro football's Oilers from Houston, is proving that the arrival of a pro team can start to change stereotypes. "Now when I'm out traveling," exults Mayor Phil Bredesen, "people say to me, 'There's something big going on in Nashville, isn't there?' " Because of the Oilers - soon to be renamed the Titans - "people know we've got more than country music."

Announcing the Patriots deal last week, Connecticut Gov. John Rowland (R) crooned, "We want to redefine Hartford. We want to be more than a mile marker between New York and Boston." This deal, he said, will be "the turning point."

During the past decade, the once-thriving insurance capital has been in slow decline. And the city's one pro team, hockey's Whalers, got wooed away by Raleigh, N.C., in 1997.

A home in Hartford

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But now, after months of secret negotiations - capped off by a clandestine meeting of Governor Rowland and Patriots owner Robert Kraft in a deserted airplane hanger - the city has a new source of pride.

Indeed, Rowland says the stadium will anchor his big revitalization effort - a $1.1 billion downtown entertainment and shopping complex called Adriaen's Landing.

But the price is high: The state will build Mr. Kraft a $350-million, 68,000-seat stadium with 6,000 premium seats and as many as 150 luxury boxes. In addition, Connecticut will give Kraft the land to build a $20 million NFL entertainment complex.

What are the benefits?

Skeptics of this and other plans - such as Denver's voter-approved pledge to pitch in $270 million for the new Broncos stadium - say they're a waste.

"A pro football team contributes to the local economy about as much a Wal-Mart store," says Joseph Bast, president of The Heartland Institute in Chicago. He cites numerous studies that find little, if any, economic boon.

He argues that owners and politicians get the benefits, while fans and taxpayers get shorted. Under NFL revenue-sharing rules, owners keep stadium profits - which increase with new luxury boxes. Politicians claim credit for new status, Mr. Bast says, while other more-important issues can go unaddressed.

Meanwhile, taxpayers must fund the deals, and ticket prices jump an average of 32 percent in newly constructed stadiums.

Yet supporters aren't swayed. Jacksonville, Fla., boasts that its Jaguars football team adds $130 million a year to the economy. Money magazine also named Jacksonville the South's fifth-best city to live in this year - which officials attribute partly to the Jaguars' presence.

Even those who don't claim any economic benefit say a pro team is like a city park: It'll never pay for itself, but it's sure nice to have.

As for Hartford, when asked by this reporter about the Patriots' impact on the city's national profile, Chamber of Commerce president Tim Moynihan put it this way: "Let's just say that last week you had never heard my name, but today my phone is ringing like crazy."

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