In three weeks the newly renovated XL Center will officially open with a Celtics-Knicks NBA exhibition. With a fan lounge, concourse level luxury seating, improved handicapped seating, color coding for easier location and an open symmetry between the arena and the concourse, the XL Center will assume it’s continuing role as the home of the AHL Hartford Wolf Pack and a home away from home for the UCONN men’s and women’s basketball teams while becoming the Hockey East venue for UCONN hockey.

The excitement surrounding the retrofitted facility is putting Hartford on the map, with three of the biggest tours of the year stopping here, Tom Petty and Steve Winwood, Cher and the original Fleetwood Mac. The XL Center can’t revitalize Hartford alone and Global Spectrum chief Frank Russo acknowleged that when his company took over the facility last year. Russo said the city would need events that use Hartford’s exteriors to connect downtown to the arts and entertainment district and Adrien’s Landing, newly revitalized itself with a multiplex movie theater and the just opened Infinity Music Hall.

Last fall Travelers dug into it’s past to bring to life an idea born from the Travelers Criterium cycling races that came and went in the late stages of the last century. With the competition aspect of the criterium as it’s basis, Travelers came up with an expanded idea, one that embraces the family with activities that appeal to a broad cross-section. It was just the kind of conduit Russo felt Hartford needed, if it could succeed.

The evidence of the success of the event will be on display this weekend when the Connecticut Cycling Festival returns to downtown Hartford, pedaling off at 8:00 AM tomorrow with the Connecticut Gran Fondo, 45 and 100 mile rides through beautiful suburban venues. True to it’s roots, the cycling festival comes complete with competition, with the eight corner criterium races on the downtown streets, while catering to all interests and ages with races for kids and events for runners of all ages, as well as cyclists, all wrapped up in an environment of games, food and fesitivities.

The Connecticut Cycling Festival has already demonstrated it’s staying power. As it becomes an annual September outdoor event in Hartford, with the Hartford Marathon having already gained status as one of the top events of it’s kind every October, the Festival of Lights in November and December and outdoor skating every winter in Bushnell Park, the city is on the way to presenting a necessary image and, more importantly, a willingness to continue to build on that image.

For some the ultimate goal is to give Hartford a major league look that a major league may eventually look for. But what if all this image building doesn’t get those people where they want to go?.

Building on events like the Connecticut Cycling Festival will take us miles from where we’ve been, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that.

With a comment from the sports world, I’m Scott Gray.


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