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CT Construction Digest Wednesday January 25, 2023

CT 2023 School Construction Priority List (CLICK LINK)

State fires hazmat company involved in Diamantis investigation

Dave Altimari

The state has terminated the contract of a West Haven hazardous waste remediation company ensnared in the federal investigation into former state official Konstantinos Diamantis.

The state did not offer any explanation for why the contract was ended other than “it would be in the best interest of the state.”

AAIS Corp. was one of two companies named in a subpoena by a federal grand jury investigating Diamantis, who ran the state Office of School Construction Grants & Review until he retired in October 2021. Municipal officials have said Diamantis pressured them to hire specific contractors, construction managers and hazardous waste and asbestos removal companies, including AAIS. 

A CT Mirror investigation last February revealed that AAIS and a second company, Bestech Inc. of Ellington, got all but 15 of the 284 purchase orders issued by the state for hazardous waste disposal and demolition from fiscal year 2017 through February 2022.

The same day the CT Mirror asked questions about the contract in February 2022, the state Department of Administrative Services cancelled the contract. Months later, DAS created a new contract that included six vendors, including AAIS, and later amended it to limit its use.

In a letter dated Jan. 9, 2023, Robert E. Burk, the Director of Procurement Programs and Services for DAS, informed AAIS officials they were terminating them from state contract 20PSX0154 effective immediately.

“DAS has determined that it would be in the best interest of the State of Connecticut to terminate the Contract,” Burk wrote. “I am taking this action pursuant to the authority granted to me under the Connecticut General Statutes and, more specifically, the provisions of Section 33 of the Contract.”

The letter said the termination would take effect the next day and that there were no jobs left that AAIS needed to complete. 

A man who answered the phone at AAIS offices in West Haven said that the company would have no comment on the state’s decision or whether they planned to fight it.

The state’s decision to disqualify AAIS comes at a time when the state Department of Administrative Services is waiting to receive an audit report about the demolition and abatement contracts that the state authorized in recent years. 

DAS hired Marcum LLP, an independent auditing firm, in early 2022 to look into those contacts. It paid the firm to review several dozen abatement contracts and to analyze some of that work to ensure the contractors didn’t improperly bill the state. 

DAS officials told the CT Mirror this week that audit report was not complete yet. 

From the 2017 fiscal year through February 2022, the state paid about $29.2 million for hazardous waste and asbestos abatement work under DAS contract 16PSX0110. AAIS received $20.6 million of that and Bestech $8.2 million, purchase orders show — about 98.8% of all the money spent through the contract.  

The state issued 284 purchase orders under the emergency contract. AAIS was named on 214 purchase orders, including exclusive agreements to do work at all state colleges and vocational schools. Some of the work was assigned by other state agencies, such as the Military Department, but the majority were assigned by DAS. 

One of the contractors, Haz-Pros, got five jobs. Environmental Services Inc. got 10. Bestech Inc. got the remaining 55.

DAS contract 20psx0154 added more contractors to the emergency list. In addition to AAIS, Bestech and Haz-Pros, four new companies are included: Manafort Brothers Inc., New England Yankee Construction, Omni Environmental and Stamford Wrecking Company, which had been battling the state for nearly a year.

The new contract soon included guidelines that placed restrictions on when towns can hire the companies on the state’s approved list, including that they can be used only for minor rehabilitation projects that cost less than $500,000 and “emergency projects,” defined as work that needs to begin within 24 hours. Demolition projects were explicitly excluded from the contract.

The original DAS contract was designed to be an on-call emergency list for towns to use for hazardous waste abatement ranging from asbestos removal to mold remediation in state buildings.

But under Diamantis, many municipalities started using the list to bid for hazardous waste removal and demolition on school construction projects. 

A groundbreaking for indoor water park resort adjacent to Foxwoods set for Feb. 1

Brian Hallenbeck

Mashantucket ― Great Wolf Resorts, the Chicago-based developer known for indoor water parks, will officially break ground here Feb. 1 on a $300 million project adjacent to Foxwoods Resort Casino.

Foxwoods and its owner, the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe, announced Tuesday the Great Wolf Lodge at Mashantucket is scheduled to open in 2025.

The development will take shape on 13 acres of reservation land between Foxwoods’ Rainmaker entrance and the Pequot Outpost gas station/convenience store on Foxwoods Boulevard, where some preliminary site work has taken place. The resort will feature a 91,000-square-foot indoor water park, a 61,000-square-foot family entertainment center, family restaurants and lodging.

The Mashantucket development will be Great Wolf’s 23rd North American resort and its third in the northeastern United States, joining resorts in Fitchburg, Mass., and in Scotrun, Pa., in the Pocono Mountains.

The tribe first revealed plans for the resort during Foxwoods’ 30th anniversary celebration last February. At a contract-signing in March, Great Wolf officials said they expected to start construction this past summer and complete the project in 2024, a timetable that has been pushed back.

They also said the resort would include a 550-room hotel and attract up to 600,000 visitors a year from within a 6½-hour drive.

The Mashantuckets originally engaged with Great Wolf in 2007, when the tribe and the developers pursued a plan to build an indoor water park on tribe-owned, non-reservation land along Route 214 in Ledyard. After town officials approved a zoning change for the project, it was abandoned in the face of the Great Recession.

Great Wolf and the tribe also discussed a water park in 2010 and again in 2014.

Danbury career academy won’t open in fall 2024; ambitious plan for west side school delayed at least a year

Rob Ryser

DANBURY – The new career academy-style high school and middle school that aims to accommodate 1,400 city students at a refurbished west side office park will miss its 2024 opening goal and be delayed at least a year.

“It is no longer a secret about the academies at Danbury High School and the Cartus site,” said Danbury school Superintendent Kevin Walston as he told the Board of Education at a meeting earlier this month that the city’s ambitious plan to convert a 260,000-square-foot office building into badly needed classrooms has been set back. “The building is being delayed and will not open in the 2024-25 school year. The physical school site will not be opening until 2025-26.”

The information that the city will miss the deadline on the most important infrastructure project in recent memory was buried in a City Hall-produced video in mid-December, where City Engineer Antonio Iadarola said, “It looks like we might be able to hit the 2025 opening for the school.”

The reason for the missed opening date: Negotiations to buy the hilltop building on Apple Ridge Road  ate up too much time. The city didn’t close on the deal until late November.

Not only was the financing complicated to untangle, but 12 acres of the 24-acre former Cartus office park also had a deed restriction forbidding its use for anything other than a parking lot, Iadarola said on Monday.

The city required the seller to get the deed restriction lifted as a condition of the sale, a process that took months.

“The voters passed the ($164 million career academy) referendum in June and we had expected to close in July,” Iadarola said.

Danbury closed on the property sale Nov. 26., which made an August 2024 opening date undoable, he said.

“Although we anticipate being able to finish the project well before August of 2025, you can’t open up a school of this size in mid-year,” Iadarola said.

As a result, the Danbury school board and city leaders will meet Tuesday to discuss next steps.

Roberto Alves, a Democrat running in a rematch race for mayor against one-term GOP incumbent Dean Esposito, said the missed opening date for the career academy was a failure of leadership and a failure of transparency, because City Hall did not inform taxpayers of the delay.

“This is just a pattern of failure,” Alves said. “This is a facility that we desperately need, and this is not the first time that there has been a failure of negotiations.”

Alves was referring to earlier plans for a career academy at the 1.2-million-square-foot office park known as The Summit, which fell through in early 2022, forcing City Hall to scramble to find a new location for classroom space.

An announcement that the city had found a substitute site to buy that overlooked the Danbury Fair mall took the sting out of the collapsed negotiations with The Summit, but it put the city on a tight timeline to stay on the original schedule.

Throughout the second half of 2022, City Hall touted its revised plans for the west side academy.

But in the end, City Hall’s plan was more ambitious than successful.

City leaders and school officials will meet in a joint strategy session on Tuesday to talk about how to provide the career academy-style curriculum as scheduled in the 2024-25 school year, even though the building won’t be ready for another year.

Esposito said the larger goals of the career academy are on track and within reach.

“This deal has been very complex with multiple parties involved,” he said in a statement. “Through negotiations and the due diligence required for a deal like this, we have achieved a successful solution for our city, and now own the Cartus building and have begun Phase One.”

“As mayor, I am determined and focused to create a smooth transition to the new building, and the new curriculum and will not jeopardize the education of our students by beginning mid-year of a school year,” Esposito said. “We will build a school the entire city will be proud of and have a curriculum that will help our students succeed throughout their entire lives.”

Wallingford plans to revamp proposal for old train station after not receiving grant

Kate Ramunni

WALLINGFORD — The town will begin working on a new application for a state Communities Challenge Grant after getting word that it was not successful in the last funding round.

"We were notified about a week or so ago" that the town would not be receiving the $1.7 million it applied for to go towards renovations at the former train station, Wallingford Mayor William Dickinson Jr. said Tuesday.

 "They had handed out a portion of the money and they indicated we can apply again so we are intending to do that," he said.

The town was hoping to get the grant, which the town would match, to do work at the train station to transform it into commercial space. That work includes exterior roof repairs, exterior brick work, windows, and the reconfiguration of the interior of the building for a better floor layout, along with improvements to the mechanical and electrical systems. 

The area around the building, between Quinnipiac Street and Hall Avenue and bordered by Johanna Manfreda Fishbein Park and the railroad tracks, is an Incentive Housing Zone. The Planning and Zoning Commission recently approved increasing the density allowed in parts of the area to 50 units per acre to encourage more housing development there, and the renovation of the train station is seen as an important part of that plan. 

The state Department of Economic and Community Development created the Communities Challenge Grant Program to provide funding to municipalities "to improve livability, vibrancy, convenience and equity of communities throughout the state," according to its website. It also will create about 3,000 jobs over the life of the grant program, according to the website.

The municipalities must match the grant to be eligible. Eligible projects include transit development, downtown development, infrastructure and public space improvements and affordable housing development.

In the description of the program, the DECD encourages applications that include partnerships between the municipality and developers. 

"DECD encourages public-private partnerships," the website states.  "Eligible entities are welcome to partner with one or more of the following types of organizations: private developers, business organizations, other institutions or each other to submit an application."

Dickinson said he'll be reaching out to developers to get their input and ideas for renovation of the train station.

"We need to get more details to flesh out our proposal,” he said. “We will be looking to talk to some developers and develop a more defined project, especially with what the role of the developer would be.

“Other funding options that we are aware of deal with historic building type grants, but they require you to not change the use," Dickinson said. "You have to commit to a given use for 20 years. We're actually proposing a change of use for the railroad station."

Other grant opportunities are generally much smaller in scale, he said. "We're applying for $1.7 million. That's a much larger amount of money than any of the other grants that I'm aware of."

The next round of Community Challenge Grants will be given out in the spring, and the town intends to apply in that cycle as well, Dickinson said.

Westport considers redistricting, new middle school model

Kayla Mutchler

WESTPORT — School officials are looking at the possibility of redistricting to address the overcrowding at Long Lots Elementary Schools, which might also mean changing how the grades are split between the middle schools.

Long Lots has more than 600 students, making it the district's largest elementary school. To help address this in the short-term, officials approved adding two modular units at the school for the next school year. School board members suggested redistricting as an alternative to the modulars in the coming years as officials determine whether Long Lots should be built new or renovated.

The building committee is expected to make a decision around June, Board of Education Chair Lee Goldstein said at this week's school board meeting. 

"Until we know what is happening with Long Lots, I don't think we can make any sort of meaningful plan," Goldstein said about the redistricting.

Superintendent Thomas Scarice said the construction for Long Lots likely wouldn't be completed until September 2027. He proposed September 2025 as a potential time to redistrict, with multiple board members saying they do not support it occurring in 2024, including Christina Torres and Kevin Christie.

Before any other steps, Scarice said they must first have a key decision for Long Lots and Coleytown Elementary School, which may also need a rebuild, determine where Stepping Stones Preschool will be located and conduct a capacity study on the schools. 

Board Member Robert Harrington was one of the members who pushed for the redistricting discussion, saying that however it occurs, it needs to be "thought out and communicated."

Scarice said community input needs to be considered before and after he recommends a redistricting plan to the board. 

Some of the other key details within the redistricting Scarice mentioned include ample notice to families whose schools may change, looking at potentials for grandfathering some students into the school, reanalyzing start times and conducting a traffic study. 

Board Secretary Neil Phillips said that they could look at programming from kindergarten through fifth grade, which led to a discussion about reconfiguring the middle schools. Currently, certain elementary schools feed into certain middle schools. 

Hordon said she is in support of the grades six through eight model in the middle schools, though she has heard some parents say that there is an imbalance in programming. such as extracurricular activities, at Coleytown Middle School compared to Bedford Middle School because of the size difference.

One of the options would be to have a sixth-grade only middle school and then a seventh and eighth grade school. Scarice said a drawback of this is that it adds another transition between schools for students. 

Board of Education Vice Chair Liz Heyer said she would like to see a clear set of primary goals established for redistricting and that she doesn't want the ideas to be overcomplicated. 

Torres said they also need to consider the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on elementary students, social emotional wellbeing and mental health. She recommended giving students an extra year or two of consistency, as many are still lacking in social skills from the pandemic. 

"Moving kids does impact more than just the family of the students who are moving, but also their friends who may be staying," she said.