CEO Hank Ratner calls Garden project a 'transformation,'not a renovation

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Hank Ratner, President & CEO of The Madison Hank Ratner, President & CEO of The Madison Square Garden Company speaks about the Garden from a 10th floor viewing area that features a clear view of the floor. (Oct. 18, 2011) Photo Credit: Craig Ruttle

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Neil Best Newsday columnist Neil Best

Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned in 1985. His SportsWatch column debuted on Sept.

Prying the word out of Hank Ratner's mouth is a challenge, and when he utters it, he cringes a bit.

"What's a 'renovation?' '' he said. "You renovate your kitchen.''

That is decidedly not what Ratner, president and CEO of The Madison Square Garden Company, set out to do with The World's Most Famous Arena in a process now less than a year from the finish line.

Call it a "transformation,'' please. Garden employees have learned that the hard way. Well, not all that hard, but still, those who mess up are requested to pay modestly for their sin.

"There is a friendly, benevolent suggestion,'' Ratner said, smiling, when asked the penalty for misspeaking. "There's no requirement. They can voluntarily make a donation to the Garden of Dreams Foundation.''

That donation can be as little as $5, and "it doesn't happen often'' anymore, he said.

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Two years into the project, the reason for Ratner's terminological pickiness has become evident. Already, the only thing about the previous Garden that is fully recognizable from inside is the ceiling.

Next summer, the final touches will include a new scoreboard, new lobby and the most anticipated wrinkle: a pair of "bridges'' that will allow fans to watch from spans suspended above the upper seating bowl.

"Renovate has a certain connotation, that you're sort of fixing a place up,'' Ratner said. "We were transforming Madison Square Garden into a brand new building inside the existing Madison Square Garden.

"So the word renovation was just an inaccurate description of what was taking place.''

Ratner insisted the motivation for the overhaul, which is expected to cost about $1 billion, was internal and not a reaction to the new arenas and stadiums that have sprouted around the area since 2007.

But no matter how iconic the Garden is, there was no way it could compete without upgrading its amenities to 21st-century standards. Not given the fact that when the Islanders move to Brooklyn, every major New York pro team will play in a new building other than the Knicks, Rangers and Liberty.

Hence the decision, after abandoning the notion of a built-from-scratch arena across Eighth Avenue, of gutting and re-imagining the 1968 landmark where it stood, a plan that initially seemed audacious.

"It was the best-of-both-worlds alternative,'' Ratner said, "where you kept the history, you kept the icon, you kept the ceiling, you kept the experiences people have had in here since the late 1960s, but you updated.''

Like other new buildings, the improvements -- from wide concourses to gourmet food to more bathrooms to better sightlines -- have come with a stiff cost in the form of rising Knicks and Rangers ticket prices.

There also have been grumbles about long journeys from the middle of wide rows to the nearest escape aisles.

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All in all, though, fans generally seem pleased. Knicks fans, anyway. Rangers fans have not yet gotten a look at the latest phase thanks to the ongoing NHL lockout.

One of the project's proudest additions is Garden 366, an exhibit that wraps the entire sixth floor concourse and highlights a Garden event for every calendar day, from the obvious such as the Rangers winning the Stanley Cup on June 14, 1994, to obscurities such as the Jersey Jolters winning a Roller Derby title on June 8, 1950.

The first of the 366 to be updated might be Dec. 12, which currently features Amar'e Stoudemire's eighth game in a row with 30 or more points in 2010. This Dec. 12, the Garden will host a star-studded fundraiser for victims of superstorm Sandy.

Ten particularly memorable moments are chronicled with full, museum-style exhibits, with 10 more to come next year.

"Part of the transformation was our ability to tell its story throughout the building, not to go create a little Hall of Fame room somewhere,'' Ratner said.

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As the project has unfolded, there have been no grand re-opening ceremonies. That will wait until after Phase III next summer.

By then, Ratner hopes the full impact of the "transformation'' will be evident. "We figured out a way to do it where we have a new building,'' he said. "We're not done yet. But that's a new building.''

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controlling interests in the Knicks, Rangers, Madison Square Garden and Cablevision. Cablevision owns Newsday.

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