HARTFORD, Conn. (WTNH) — Almost two decades ago, Connecticut was all abuzz about the New England Patriots. Not because they were headed to the big game, but because they were headed to Connecticut, or were they really?
Almost 19 years later there is still disagreement over whether Patriots owner Robert Kraft really ever intended to bring his team to Connecticut.
The main player in the Connecticut Patriots deal of two decades ago, former Governor John Rowland, is unavailable for interviews because he’s in prison. But the other two major players are available and they have opposing views as to what was actually going on.
On November 18, 1998, Patriots owner Robert Kraft appeared at what can only be described as huge pep rally of the state’s political leaders from both parties to announce the deal. On that day, he told them and a statewide television audience, “This is a great day for the New England Patriots, the Kraft family, and the fans of our great team.”
Governor Rowland had quietly cut the deal earlier in the month, but kept it under wraps until he had safely been re-elected for a second term. It called for the state to bank roll close to a billion dollars to develop a state-of-the-art football stadium along the river at the junction of I-91 and I-84 in Hartford.
Less than a month later, the legislature rubber stamped the plan in a Special Session by a bi-partisan margin of two to one. Hartford Attorney Tom Ritter was the Speaker of the Connecticut House and remains convinced the deal was real and do-able because Boston was out of the picture.
“Boston had given up,” said Ritter. “I talked to the Speaker there, Tom Finneran, a very close friend of mine, who actually hated Robert Kraft. He said ‘be my guest.”
The deal hinged on moving a huge steam and water cooling plant that supplied heat and air conditioning to the majority of the largest buildings in the city, plus environmental clean up of the land. Kraft wanted this all done and the stadium completed in time for the 2002 season. Kraft made all kinds of ‘coming to Connecticut’ public relations moves for months, including looking to buy a home.
But moving the steam plant and cleaning up the land started to look much more complicated than first thought. Ritter says that’s when Boston had a change of heart.
“When we started failing to live up to our end of the obligations, Boston got a second wind,” said Ritter.
At the end of April of 1999, Kraft suddenly pulled the plug on the deal and, you should pardon the expression, ‘deflating’ everyone’s euphoria, got the one he wanted for Foxborough.
State Tax Commissioner Kevin Sullivan was the leader in the Senate then and now says he’s not proud of the Pats deal.
“Looking back, I think people were afraid to say no and they were afraid to ask questions because it looked like you weren’t being enthusiastic. It looked like you weren’t being a good sport,” said Sullivan.
“This is a setback, there’s no doubt about that,” said Rowland in another televised news conference, and announced he was now officially a New York Jets fan.
“Kraft played the State of Connecticut in order to leverage his position in Boston where he was always going to be, it was just a question of when they would write a bigger check and give him the benefits he wanted,” said Sullivan.
“I know I’m in the minority but I was very close to this and I will, I’ve always been very clear that I think it could have happened,” said Ritter.
“I think we’re absolutely better off. I think we would be paying for this thing right now. It would not have added value, it would only have added a huge additional burden to the State of Connecticut,” said Sullivan.
The steam plant remains and the Connecticut Convention Center-hotel-Connecticut Science Center complex is on the site. It cost about a billion dollars and the citizens of Connecticut are still paying for it.
The Kraft family has always said they had every intention of moving the team without any intention of leverage with the one condition that the site could be ready and construction completed in time to play football at the start of the 2002 season.