CT Construction Digest Friday February 9, 2024
Of all the “new normals” that the pandemic brought us, one that stubbornly continues to linger is the downturn in business travel.
For a time while COVID was at its height, in-person meetings, once seen as essential, were entirely replaced by the ubiquitous video conference. And in the years since, many companies have continued to realize the savings from the ability to hop on a laptop rather than a plane to connect with both colleagues and clients.
Kevin Dillon, executive director of the Connecticut Airport Authority (CAA), said 2023 was a year of continued recovery for air travel in general, and at the state’s largest hub, Bradley International Airport.
“We captured back a lot of our pre-pandemic traffic,” he said. “But if you look at where we’re at right now, on any given day we’re still about 5% to 7% below where we were pre-pandemic, and a good portion of that is related to this business travel component.”
Overall passenger traffic at Bradley Airport, from January 2023 through November 2023, was up 8.1% from 2022, but 7% behind pre-pandemic 2019, according to CAA data.
A survey of employers released in 2023 by Deloitte did show growth in the sector, and predicted that business travel could see full recovery to pre-pandemic levels by late 2024.
But the same survey showed that many companies are continuing to eye their travel budget as a place where they can cut costs and increase sustainability by reducing employee trips.
When travel does happen these days, it’s more often short range — managers are approving trips within driving distance rather than shelling out for flights.
“We have felt all along that despite the fact that business travel across the board was down during the pandemic, those companies that have external customers would have to return to business travel,” said Dillon.
“But it’s the intra-company travel — for example, a company that’s headquartered here in Connecticut, but has operations on the West Coast — are their employees going to travel to interact with their peers, or are they going to continue to do that via Zoom and other platforms?” he said. “That, I think, is the big question.”
Private aviation’s appeal
The recent unreliability of the airline industry in general has been a drag on business travel’s recovery, experts said.
“Their schedules haven’t kept up, their reliability hasn’t kept up,” said Doug Gollan, who writes about the private aviation industry. “There are all sorts of different issues impacting airline service.”
“With flights booked to the gills, if you miss your connection at a hub or your flight is canceled, it’s not arriving at your destination an hour later, it’s ‘we can’t get you there till the next day.’”
Gollan runs a subscription database that shows his clients flexible ways to access travel by private jet, including memberships, charters and jet cards that allow companies to buy a certain number of flying hours.
He said of the subscribers to his service who are just starting to consider their options, “over 60% of them say the reason that they’re looking to fly privately is a bad airline service.”
Private jet use had seen a steady rise in the decade before the pandemic. In the last three years, that increase has been more dramatic.
By some accounts, overall private jet use in the U.S. has increased by 20% over 2019 levels.
Gollan said more company executives began to realize the convenience of private aviation during the pandemic.
“Time is money,” he said. That’s led to what Gollan calls “situational use” of private jet travel by companies. “If there’s two things private aviation does, it saves you time, and there’s no such thing as lost baggage.”
The trend is observable even at a smaller commercial airport like Bradley, which saw a 22.4% increase in private jet flights between 2000 and 2002.
The airport hosted 12,346 private flights in 2022, and 11,953 in 2023, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.
And those numbers may get a boost in the near future: Bradley just announced a major deal with New York-based private jet service company Sky Harbour to build a $30 million hangar complex at the airport.
The deal encompasses the construction of five private hangars that will include lounge and office space, together totaling about 92,000 square feet.
Sky Harbour’s Chief Financial Officer Francisco Gonzalez said the company’s interest in Hartford stems from a significant deficit of hangar space for private aviation in the tri-state area.
“The business, in terms of demand for business aviation, continues to grow,” Gonzalez said. “And where do you put all these planes? Bradley is a great airport in terms of its location.”
Gonzalez said the makeup of the clientele at Sky Harbour’s sites around the country varies widely, but he expects Bradley to house a significant business presence, including “some corporate fleets who right now may have their planes all over this region. They’re looking for a good, business-friendly airport to consolidate their operations. And, we will be providing them with the opportunity to have the real estate that they need to accomplish that.”
Sky Harbour’s development will join fixed-base operators Atlantic Aviation and Signature Aviation, which also host private jet facilities at Bradley.
The CAA’s Dillon confirms that the shortage of hangar facilities regionally is benefitting not just Bradley.
“These are very expensive aircraft; people want them inside a hangar facility versus parked on a ramp area,” he said. “A lot of the activity that’s been brought to some of our general aviation airports — Waterbury-Oxford comes to mind — is activity that was over at Teterboro Airport in New York, but because of the congestion at Teterboro and the lack of hangar space, those aircraft have relocated.”
Waterbury-Oxford is also in the middle of an investment deal with private aviation company Clay Lacy, which is building a new $40 million full-service, fixed-base operator and corporate hangar facility. It is due to open later this year.
Dillon said the expected relocation of private aircraft attracted by the new investment at Bradley will be good for the local economy all around.
And, while the dynamics may be changed and the improvement is slow, he remains hopeful that a full recovery for business travel more broadly remains in the cards.
Part of that confidence was reflected in the Connecticut Airport Authority and MetroHartford Alliance recently announcing plans to recruit a direct flight from Bradley International Airport to London, an effort that will likely require a revenue guarantee from the state and strong backing from the business community.
“We do meet with travel managers of some of the area’s largest employers, and I think they have indicated that business travel is resuming, that in 2024 it’s going to continue to be restored,” Dillon said.
Attorney General William Tong on Tuesday announced his office had closed a whistleblower investigation into the Connecticut Port Authority and determined there was nothing illegal about the $523,000 “success fee” paid to a contractor, Seabury Capital, whose co-founder was a former port authority board member.
The investigation dates back to 2020, when the Connecticut Auditors of Public Accounts received allegations from a whistleblower about potentially improper and unethical conduct by port authority employees, board members and a contractor, New York-based Seabury Capital, also known as Seabury PFRA, LLC. The auditors reviewed the complaints and reported the findings to the attorney general’s office, which in turn opened an investigation.
“Our investigation did not substantiate the whistleblower’s allegations of impropriety regarding ‘success fees,’ but it did substantiate allegations of unethical behavior, as well as develop evidence of multiple alleged violations of both the Code of Ethics for Public Officials and the Code of Ethics for Lobbyists,” Tong said in a statement.
In 2023, the Office of State Ethics determined Seabury, the company hired by the port authority to find an operator for State Pier in New London, violated the code of ethics for lobbyists by spending money on items like food, drinks and overnight lodging between 2017 and 2019 for port authority employees that included its former Executive Director Evan Matthews. Seabury paid $20,000 to settle the violation with the Office of State Ethics.
Henry W. Juan, a former port authority board member and Seabury managing director, paid a $18,500 fine in a settlement over allegations he illegally lobbied the port authority. Juan did not admit any wrongdoing as part of the settlement. In 2022, former port authority employee Andrew Lavigne was fined $750 and suspended for two days for accepting tickets to a hockey game.
Tong, in a statement, said the success fees paid to Seabury, which were criticized as a potentially illegal “finder’s fee” by the State Contracting Standards Board, were in fact payments contained in an agreement between the port authority and Seabury. The $523,000 success fee was part of a $700,000 payment to Seabury in 2020 for the work the company performed.
“Those success fee provisions were both legal and sanctioned by the CPA Board of Directors,” Tong wrote. “The success fee provisions in the Agreement were legal because, although the success fees could be considered ‘finders fees,’ they were compensation for the provision of ‘financial advisory services,’ ” Tong wrote.
Aside from codes of ethics violations, the investigation did not develop evidence of additional illegal conduct, Tong said in a statement.
“The agency tasked with enforcing Codes of Ethics violations ― namely, the Office of State Ethics ― did just that,” Tong said. “We thank the OSE for its hard work and dedication to enforcing Connecticut’s ethics laws.”
The Connecticut Port Authority issued a statement after news from the attorney general’s office: “While the CPA has no comment regarding the AG’s press release, the CPA is proud of the professional administration of its policies, procedures and financial management over the past few years, which should give our citizen’s confidence that the foundation for future success is in place.”
A spokeswoman for Gov. Ned Lamont deferred questions to Tong.
Senate Republican Leader Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, issued a statement questioning the attorney general’s opinion.
“The work of the Attorney General and his team is appreciated, and we thank the Office of State Ethics for enforcing our ethics laws,” Kelly said in a statement. “However, this may require a closer look at the legislative level. People on Main Street – working and middle class families - view this situation as both unethical and improper. They want accountability. A review of our state statutes in this area may be in order.”
MANCHESTER — A solar farm developer petitioned the state late last month to build a facility in Manchester's "rural residential" zone.
California-based TRITEC Americas hopes to install a solar array on 7.8 acres of vacant land at 250 Carter St., bordering the cul-de-sac on Amanda Drive and a handful of single-family homes on Blue Ridge Drive and Carter Street.
Residents of rural Bethany pushed back against a similar proposal from TRITEC that would see a similar facility installed on 6.5 acres of land, though the petition is still pending. Both plans are significantly smaller than East Windsor's contentious solar farms, billed as a way to help the state meet Gov. Ned Lamont's goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2040.
TRITEC bills its proposed Manchester facility to the Connecticut Siting Council in the same way in a narrative dated Jan. 24, arguing in its petition that the solar panels would supply just under one megawatt of "clean, carbon-free" electricity with no adverse environmental effects.
The Siting Council has jurisdiction over infrastructure projects across the state, including energy facilities and telecommunications projects. The town of Manchester and its residents can comment on the proposed solar farm, but the decision of whether to approve it ultimately lies with the state.
The Planning and Zoning Commission will hold a public hearing on Feb. 21 to collect public comment on the proposed solar facility.
Town assessor documents list 250 Carter St. as a privately owned, 41.08-acre wooded lot. If approved, the developer would create a 7.8-acre clearing within the forested area for an array of 2,590 solar panels, as well as the equipment needed to convert the energy and send electricity back into the power grid. The "non-reflective" solar panels would be surrounded by a chain-link fence and buffered from nearby houses by what would remain of the tree line.
TRITEC said in addition to providing renewable energy, the project would benefit the town through revenue from property and equipment taxes, reduced air and water pollution from fossil fuel power plants, improved power grid resiliency for homes near 250 Carter St., and potential lowering of electricity costs.
TRITEC expects construction of the facility to take three to four months after all state and local government approvals.
NEW MILFORD – A proposal to build 107 townhouses on Pickett District Road has a few nearby residents concerned about the project's potential impact on traffic and on their properties.
“We’ve not had any activity all these years across the road from this property,” said Keith Golembeski, whose mother, Annett Golembeski, lives directly across the street from the proposed site. “And it’s a very narrow road: 500 more cars added to it is not feasible. … I don’t have a problem with the homes going there, but 500 cars per day is ridiculous to add to a road that’s already not equipped to handle the volume of traffic.”
Flagstaff Investments of New Milford submitted a special permit and site plan application to construct the 12-building townhouse residential complex to the Zoning Commission in November. The commission held a public hearing for the site plan application at its Jan. 23 meeting, and the hearing will continue at its Feb. 13 meeting.
The 13.4-acre vacant property at 240 Pickett District Road is in the multiple residence district zone, according to Town Planner Laura Regan’s summary of the project to the Zoning Commission. Less than a mile from Lovers Leap State Park, there are single-family residences across the street and to the north of the proposed site as well as business and industrial zones, according to Paul Szymanski, who represented Flagstaff Investments at the meeting.
The property includes the 5,900-square-foot remains of a building foundation, Regan said in her summary, which would be demolished to make way for the development.
Each of the 12 buildings would have five to 12 townhouses of about 1,700 square feet in size, including a garage, Regan said in her summary. Each townhouse would have three floors, a 12-foot-by-22-foot garage and a 9-foot-wide driveway, she said.
Szymanski, president of the New Milford engineering firm Arthur H. Howland & Associates, said the buildings would be set back several hundred feet on the property, and the internal driveway would be laid out in a loop for easy traffic circulation. The townhouses would all be market rate housing, he said, but didn't confirm whether they would be rented or owned. Regan confirmed the project was not an affordable housing application, according to the Zoning Commission's Jan. 23 meeting minutes.
The construction would cost $10 million, according to the site plan application. Szymanski said he would like to start construction this year and anticipates it would be a multiyear project, though he did not say when the first townhouses would be completed.
'Bumping up right into our property line'
A few residents brought up safety concerns regarding the proposed development at the Jan. 23 public hearing before the Zoning Commission.
Annette Golembeski, who resides at 225 Pickett District Road, said she has discussed the project with Szymanski many times on the phone. She said she was not opposed to the project itself, but she had concerns about potential traffic issues connected to the development.
“I see traffic on this road,” Golembeski said. “When you have an accident on Route 7 (which runs parallel to Pickett District Road), the traffic is unbelievable. We’re bumper-to-bumper-to-bumper. Can you imagine 500 cars coming down where they’re going to have an entrance and an exit?”
Matt Oneglia, vice president of O&G Industries, shared concerns about the project's proximity to the construction company’s industrial plant at 271 Danbury Road, as well as whether the proposed development site would drain onto O&G's property.
“You’re bumping up right into our property line, where you have potential housing right next to an asphalt plant,” he said.
Leigh Haeger, who resides at 229 Pickett District Road, said he’s “probably going to be the most directly impacted by this condo because the driveway is going to come out right across from my garage.”
“I think it was around 30 years ago the town took away some of my yard, so my driveway is only 14 feet long,” Haeger said. “It’s already hard to get out of my driveway with traffic in both directions. … If it ends up being a really big problem, I’m going to have to move my driveway to the front yard.”
Haeger also asked whether speed bumps could be added to slow cars near the entrance to the proposed complex.
The proposed project also calls for installing water, sewer, electrical and communication utilities; a stormwater management system; and sight lighting and landscaping, according to Regan’s summary.
A total of 214 parking spaces are also proposed, according to the site plan application. Access would be provided through a single driveway with one travel lane in each direction, according to Regan’s summary.