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CT Construction Digest Wednesday August 24, 2022

Development deal dead, Bridgeport seeks $100M for downtown theaters

Brian Lockhart

BRIDGEPORT — Months after a development deal to renovate a pair of historic, 100-year-old downtown theaters collapsed, Mayor Joe Ganim’s administration has given up on the private sector spearheading the saving of the Majestic and Poli Palace, and is instead seeking nearly $100 million in state dollars to fix up the structures.

“Believe it or not we have owned those buildings for 34 years — a long time,” William Coleman, Bridgeport’s deputy director of economic development, told City Council members recently. “We have to address them. We have far too much vacant land around the theaters and it’s hard to develop that with the blight the theaters represent.”

But, he continued, “We don’t see the economics of the private sector side working unless public sector takes on renovation.”

The effort to secure such a substantial amount of state money is, according to some local officials, not a plan, but a desperate long shot.

A year ago the Ganim administration and New York-based Exact Capital parted ways after the latter had been picked in 2017 to revive the Poli Palace, the Majestic, an adjacent hotel, plus erect 10-story and 18-story residential buildings. Ganim, who during his successful 2015 mayoral bid pledged to revive the theaters, had trumpeted the deal with Exact during his failed 2018 gubernatorial campaign, but ground was never broken.

Exact Capital executives did not over the years return numerous requests for comment. City officials have claimed Exact had difficulty obtaining financing before and during the coronavirus pandemic, then last year broke off contact.

Coleman last week told the council’s economic development committee that City Hall has a Plan B — applying to the new Community Investment Fund the state legislature established in 2021 for nearly $100 million to save the theaters.

“Sixty five million for construction with a very hefty contingency,” Coleman explained, adding if the private sector cannot take on such a steep price tag, neither can Bridgeport.

“We just don’t see any ability for this city and the taxpayers to bare the burden,” he said.

Coleman also noted how that $100 million would not get the job finished.

“All that would get you is the theater buildings fully renovated so they could be habitable and usable, but it wouldn’t get you modern facilities, modern electronic systems, modern stages, all the equipment we need to really make this work,” he said. “We’d look to the private sector to make that investment.”

But state Rep. Antonio Felipe, who represents the downtown, was an architect of the Community Investment Fund and sits on its board, said Monday he has reservations about the city’s application. He noted how $100 million just for two theaters in Bridgeport is a significant portion of the $875 million the state intends to award to various municipalities and nonprofits.

“It’s just hard to sit there and not think of a bunch of other things the money could be used for,” Felipe said in an interview. “It’s a hard ask.”

The city has also submitted applications for other projects totaling a much smaller $12.5 million. Felipe noted that even were Bridgeport to receive the $100 million aid for the theaters in phases, it would likely make it harder for local officials to seek dollars for other economic development priorities.

“It really takes away Bridgeport’s ability to do more,” he said, adding, “I’m committed to getting something done with those theaters at some point, but if this is the only way we can do it, that’s a problem.”

Felipe is not alone in harboring reservations. Councilman Scott Burns, an economic development committee co-chairman, told Coleman last week, “For the needs we have in our city, I don’t know that that’s the best cause.”

He called the $100 million request “out there” and questioned whether it fit the intent of the investment fund, which is supposed to focus on under-served and marginalized communities; persons who live in rural areas; and persons otherwise adversely affected by persistent poverty or inequality.

Coleman said the eventual goal would be to have a for-profit theater and one that serves the community and “where students of the city, young academics, would have a home.”

“Our public schools and our colleges and our growing arts community would have a place,” Coleman said.

Felipe on Monday said he would need to see more assurances in writing about that intent.

“My feeling is if we’re gonna ask for a big nut of money, we all have projects that fit the intent of the Community Investment Fund better,” said Burns, who also scolded Coleman and his department for not consulting with the economic development committee prior to submitting the application.

“I wonder what kind of push back you’d have gotten if you’d come to us first,” Burns said.

According to the fund’s website, the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development reviews the applications, determines eligibility and forwards those to the fund’s board for further analysis. That 21-member group — various legislators like Felipe and other state officials — then sends its recommendations to the governor, who approves and forwards them to the state bond commission for final action.

Former state Rep. Christopher Caruso spent years trying to save the Majestic and Poli Palace. And Caruso has also blamed Ganim, who before his 2015 comeback ran the city from 1991 until 2003, for not acting during his first tenure in office to save the buildings.

Caruso in an interview Monday said, “They are owned by the city and the city must be the catalyst to moving those theaters forward. The city has to take the lead.”

But Caruso questioned whether the Ganim administration has a viable plan, or is simply asking for the $100 million hoping it will help woo developers.

“I applaud the effort of the city going out and seeking the funding, but without a plan I don’t think it’s going to be successful,” Caruso said.

Though Burns questioned the grant application, some other council members like Jorge Cruz, who represents downtown, and Ernie Newton support it.

“I would like to see something go there soon,” Cruz told Coleman, lamenting that Exact Capital did not move forward with its hotel. He noted how the downtown Holiday Inn closed earlier this year after 40 years and is being turned into apartments.

“We have an opportunity to do something with those theaters,” Newton said. “Those theaters are gems to our city.”

Reopening of Tomlinson Ave bridge in Plainville, closed since April 11, has been delayed


PLAINVILLE – The re-opening of the Tomlinson Ave. bridge, currently under construction, has been pushed to October due to supply chain issues.

The Tomlinson Ave. bridge project began on Feb. 22. The bridge was closed to traffic as of April 11, with detour signs put in place to redirect motorists. A state grant is covering 80% of this $2 million project.

On Sunday, Town Manager Michael Paulhus announced the delay on the Plainville Talks community social media page.

"The construction project required the removal and replacement of a water line and parts that were ordered in April are now scheduled to ship by the end of August," Paulhus said. "Once received, it will take Dayton Construction approximately two to three weeks to install and test the water line. Re-paving will take another two to hree weeks, weather permitting. School administrators have been notified of the delay."

Town Engineer John Bossi said the project includes the removal of the previous corrugated metal twin culverts, which had deteriorated. They will be replaced with pre-cast twin box culverts made from concrete. The project also includes channel modifications and pavement repairs.

“The bridge was built in the late 1960s,” Bossi said. “The new bridge will have precast concrete square culverts, which will have a longer service life.”

This project had been in the works for 15 years, according to Bossi. He said it had been delayed due to several “regulatory snags” along the way.

Robert Lee, the previous town manager, explained earlier this year that the delays were a result of several required reviews by state and federal agencies. Other designs looked at in the past included creating a protective “sleeve” over the existing tubes or adding a third tube to increase the bridge’s flood capacity. However, there were environmental concerns with these plans.

“The bridge travels over the Quinnipiac River and it was determined by the design corps and DEEP (Department of Energy and Environmental Protection) that the original design would not allow fish to travel further upstream," Lee said at the time. "We had to pretty much throw that design out and start over. The review process dragged on and on, but it is now finally actually going forward.”

Norwich Public Utilities natural gas crews had a busy summer

Claire Bessette

Norwich ― While the Norwich Public Utilities water division spent much of the summer wishing for rain to replenish the city’s reservoirs, the utility’s natural gas division took advantage of the dry weather to plow forward with a busy year of gas line expansions, replacements, maintenance and safety work.

Barry Ellison, NPU gas operations integrity manager, presented an overview of his division’s summer construction season Tuesday to the Board of Public Utilities Commissioners. NPU spokesman Chris Riley added that with the dry weather, the gas division had a more productive summer than usual, contending with occasional heat waves, but no major weather interruptions.

The biggest expansion project is a new 3,040-foot-long, 6-inch diameter natural gas line being installed on Otrobando Avenue and Yantic Road to connect to the former Hale Mill. The mill is being converted into a 164-room hotel with a proposed 500-seat banquet hall.

The new gas line, costing about $300,000, was funded with money remaining in the 2014 voter-approved $9.5 million bond to expand NPU’s natural gas system. NPU General Manager Chris LaRose said once the line is completed, other businesses and homes along the route of the new Yantic gas line also will be eligible to connect to the service, including the Yantic volunteer fire station across from the mill.

The city charter calls for NPU to turn over 10% of gross revenues from electricity, water and natural gas divisions to the city in revenue sharing.

LaRose said this year 10 new natural gas expansions services were installed throughout the city during the summer, with several more pending, Ellison reported.

NPU crews also work each summer to replace old cast iron gas lines. First, they install new high-density polyethylene lines, connect customers to the new line and then return to decommission and seal the old cast iron lines. The lines are purged and sealed so water can’t get in and are left in the ground.

This year, crews installed 1,800 feet of new line on Maple Avenue, abandoned 2,800 feet of old cast iron line on that street and abandoned another 3,700 feet of cast iron main on Western Avenue, which was replaced last year.

Ellison said NPU works closely with Norwich Public Works to coordinate utility road work with the city’s paving schedule to avoid ripping up newly paved roads.

Each year, NPU surveys at least one third of its gas system for potential leaks, Ellison said. This year, 1,400 surveys have been completed and 250 are partially completed. No major defects have been found. Typically, Ellison said, small leaks, non-hazardous, are found in some spots where fittings need to be tightened or minor repairs made.

NPU’s field service crews each year assist the city, public school system and Otis Library with HVAC emergencies, regular scheduled services and repairs in city-owned buildings. The NPU crews bill the city, schools, public works, police department or library at discount rates, avoiding the cost of contracting out for the work, NPU officials said.

This year, NPU billed city and school agencies $24,350, saving an estimated $30,000, NPU spokesman Chris Riley said.

East Hartford signs agreement with Rentschler developers

Collin Atwood, Journal Inquirer

The town of East Hartford has signed a memorandum of understanding with ND Acquisitions LLC regarding the company’s development at Rentschler Field, which will ultimately result in money for a new athletic complex and construction of a portion of the East Coast Greenway.

The terms of the agreement were presented at the Town Council meeting on Aug. 16. The agreement states that ND Acquisitions will pay the town $1.50 for every square foot of the development just south of Rentschler Field.

ND Acquisitions plans to construct two 100,000-square-foot high-tech manufacturing buildings and two large warehouses, for a total of more than 2 million square feet.

The amount being paid to East Hartford is projected to be around $4 million.

Both parties agree that 25% of the contribution may be allocated toward the planning, design, and construction of the East Coast Greenway project. The other 75% will go toward the construction or renovation of one or more athletic or recreational facilities.

At the Aug. 16 meeting, council member John Morrison questioned how it was determined that these two items be a part of the agreement.

Mayor Mike Walsh explained that he had a conversation with representatives of the company and they determined that these two projects were “the most worthy.” He said the sports complex was “near and dear to my heart.”

Walsh said the idea came about when he visited a sports complex in Berlin. He was impressed by the series of football and practice fields at the facility.

“There should be something else besides what we have in town, just as connective tissue,” Walsh said.

Town Council Chairman Richard Kehoe said he thinks “it’s an important piece that could really help give East Hartford residents and kids the ability to cultivate their talents.”

The idea of allocating some of the money to the East Coast Greenway project came from ND Acquisitions, Walsh said.

The final item that requires action from the council before construction can start is the request from ND Acquisitions to set the inspection and permit fee on each building that it plans to construct.

Walsh said this request could come at the next Town Council meeting Sept. 6.