Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Still time to start mending fences


It was not a good way to start a campaign.

Former state Rep. Jim Amann made news not long ago by agreeing to take a newly created job with the state Assembly. As an adviser to the House speaker, the Milford resident was slated to earn a six-figure salary while he began his campaign for governor. In the midst of a budget disaster, the move didn't go over well.

Amann quickly reconsidered, reasoning (too late, it turned out) that voters wouldn't take kindly to this sort of thing during a recession. His "everyone does it" defense didn't win him any converts.

The Democratic primary next year will be among people most state residents have never heard of, and Amann can safely assume all this will blow over before anyone gets around to thinking about it. But he might want to start before then dealing with another nettlesome issue -- the left wing of his party can't stand him.

It dates back, as does so much else, to the 2006 Senate race. After Joe Lieberman lost the Democratic primary, most of the party's leadership decided such matters were best left up to the voters, and duly supported their chosen candidate. But a number of high-profile Democrats, like then-state Sen. and current Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch, stuck with their man. Amann was part of the second group.

No one needs to relive that campaign, but it's worth remembering what is was and was not about. People weren't mad at Lieberman because all his views didn't match their own; it was not an ideological purge of centrists; it did not prove there is no room for Iraq war supporters in the Democratic Party (there shouldn't be, but that's beside the point).

Lieberman was targeted and eventually lost his party's support because he refused to acknowledge his opponents had a point of view worth considering. He said people who disagreed with him were helping "the enemy" or "the terrorists." He took demagoguery to Dick Cheney-ish levels. And he used dishonest arguments to push his support for the war, all the while defaming his opponents as being insufficiently concerned with Americans' safety.

That was why the Senate primary attracted nationwide attention. There were and continue to be centrist Democrats in both houses of Congress, many of them far to the right of, say, Gov. M. Jodi Rell, a Republican. They have not been targets of any "purges."

This was all more than two years ago, so it should have sunk in by now. At the time, Amann was among Lieberman's most vocal Democratic supporters, making appealing comments like, "Shame on all of us if we allow a shrieking minority to hijack the primary." That's how you win people over!

When some Ned Lamont supporters floated the possibility of taking on Lieberman backers in primaries of their own, Amann was just as accommodating, vowing to "crush" any challenger.

Unfortunately for him, Amann shows no signs that his comprehension has improved. "When I hear fellow Democrats trying to punish another Democrat just because he has differing views," he said in a recent interview, "I realize why we haven't won the governor's office in 20 years. We should remember that our strength is our diversity; our weakness is division."

Punishment for divergent views. Can he still think this is what it's about? If he does, who would want him as governor?

With Attorney General Richard Blumenthal out of the picture, the Democratic nomination is wide open. Amann has plenty of time to prepare his campaign, though with Rell's popularity it might all be pointless anyway.

And though the core of Lamont supporters isn't large enough to decide the primary by itself, its members can have a serious impact. They proved that in 2006.

But this time, if the primary doesn't turn out right, no one should expect relief from the Connecticut for Amann Party.

Hugh S. Bailey is assistant editorial page editor at the Connecticut Post. He can be reached at 203-330-6233 or at

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Let occupants stay on waterfront land


Whatever the city of Bridgeport is going to accomplish on Steel Point, the all-but-abandoned spit of waterfront land east of the Pequonnock River that has forever been the target of large-scale development dreams, it won't happen soon. In the meantime, the city should let people who are putting the land to use go about their business.

For more than a century, the Pequonnock Yacht Club has made its home on Steel Point in Bridgeport. It has done nothing to deserve its unceremonious ouster, which was reiterated recently as the club approaches its planned exit date in November. Seeking only an extension of a few months to keep disruptions this year to a minimum, club officials say they were denied.
The city has given no indication as to why.

The problems concerning Steel Point development over the years are too numerous to mention, but high on the list is the fact that the city bulldozed scores of homes and businesses to clear a path for a project that has never been built. These homeowners and businesses paid taxes and helped make Bridgeport what it was, for good or for ill. Far from seeing the folly of such a course of action, though, the city wants only to continue on that course.

Here's a suggestion: Wait until something -- anything -- other than a fence is built on Steel Point before kicking anyone else out. The plans as they existed as recently as a few months ago are finished; nothing resembling them will ever be constructed. A replacement proposal is in limbo.

Until there is something concrete -- actual, physical concrete -- on the peninsula, the yacht club should be told it can stay in its current location if it needs the time. Bridgeport won't give up its Steel Point dreams, but it also won't make anyone else pay for decades of disastrous outcomes.

If nothing else, at least someone should get some use out of this land.

Steel Point news more of the same


At Steel Point, the city of Bridgeport's longest-running disaster movie, the script has changed.


Tempting as it would be to write off this latest permutation as a consequence of a crashing economy, such a conclusion would ignore the last generation of city history. Through good times and bad, every boom and bust, Steel Point has remained constant -- an overgrown, uninhabited, decaying symbol of everything the city is and is not.

The latest news involves Manhattan's Midtown Equities, the primary developer since 2005, assuming a minority investment role as RCI Marine, of Miami, again takes over leadership. The plan remains, as ever, to convert the waterfront peninsula into a mixed community of boating slips, retail and housing.

Apparently, the splashy performance delivered by Midtown a few years back that said "The time is now" has been declared inoperative. It's no surprise, but it's no less embarrassing.

The new plan, such as it is, would begin with a full-service marina, adjacent stores and restaurants, and a wraparound boardwalk. Without question, the developer will come up with some beautiful artistic renderings of gleaming buildings and pristine throughways. If the city could make money off the mountain of depictions these past 25 years of projects that never were and never will be, there'd be no worries about any budget deficit.

At one time, the new neighborhood was to be based around thousands of homes, mostly of the luxurious variety. When the economy looked promising, observers worried about a lack of affordable housing, and the possibility of creating an insular, upscale community in the heart of a downtrodden city. In the most recent plan, housing of any kind has been put off indefinitely.

Local leaders say they're optimistic the scaled-down version can work. Though the chances of seeing any development there often seem further away than ever, the slow-and-steady route has found some success elsewhere in the city. Residents can only hope.

Disappointment at engine plant again


Of all the local development projects to fall apart alongside the national economy in the past year, perhaps the most disappointing has been the plans for the former Stratford Army Engine Plant. Just when it looked like the project had momentum and a real shot at moving forward, the ground fell out from under it -- again.

Now, another deadline has passed with nothing to show. The 78-acre site on a prime piece of riverfront property remains as it has been for years now -- decrepit, nearly vacant and devoid of promise.

When the U.S. Army took back control of the site from Stratford officials after more than a decade of inaction, the assumption was that the full force of the Pentagon's clout would get a project going in short order. And that's the way it seemed to be going, as plans quickly coalesced for a massive film production and entertainment complex, taking advantage of a surge in state movie-making brought on by favorable tax deals worked out in Hartford.

But that's as far as the plan has progressed. The completion of "Hollywood East," as the complex was to be known, seems further away than ever.

Officials say there is still time to get a deal in place by the middle of the month, but the recent history is not promising. Amid an acrimonious fallout, the project's former backers have watched one deadline after another pass without making any progress.

This is a piece of land considered key to Stratford's economic future. Adjacent to Sikorsky Memorial Airport and situated near the mouth of the Housatonic River, the location has been touted as the future home of great things almost since the day the engine plant closed more than a decade ago. Local officials have been reluctant, for example, to place the town's animal shelter in the neighborhood on the belief that the economic viability of the town could one day be centered in the area.

Maybe that will still happen, but nothing is certain. Even without the public falling-out amongst the development team chosen for the site, the dismal economy could have put a halt to the plans on its own. There simply isn't much market for this kind of mega-project these days, as neighboring Bridgeport can attest. The market may turn around and the plan could again become viable, but no one knows when that is likely to happen.

For now, Stratford is stuck with something it never wanted to see -- its own version of Bridgeport's Steel Point .

Bridgeport again on the losing end

What is left to say about another letdown in Bridgeport? A developer comes to town promising big things; city leaders envision a long-awaited turnaround. Instead, there's nothing but a dusty, empty lot. Same old story.

This time it was a celebrated visit from NBA Hall of Famer Magic Johnson that set the process in motion. Since his playing days ended, Johnson and his development company, Canyon Johnson Urban Funds, have delivered multimillion-dollar projects in the kind of inner-city neighborhoods other businesses wouldn't touch.

So when he came to Bridgeport and toured a development site in 2007 with then-Mayor John M. Fabrizi, the excitement was palpable. On a lot used for parking adjacent to the stadium and arena at Harbor Yard, the investment team talked about a massive complex involving homes, retail and entertainment. Visions of Bridgeport's rebirth as a consumer destination, as well as millions of dollars annually in tax payments, ran rampant.

Then, for a long time, came silence. While the developers and investors tried to attract retail tenants and get the project on solid footing, the national economy collapsed underneath them. What had looked so promising quickly turned into a debacle.

So no one was all that surprised recently when word came out the project was dead. The dreams of a hotel, movie theater, townhouses and retail were out the window. Along with the continuing inaction at the former Remington Shaver factory and Steel Point , Bridgeport is 0-for-3 on large-scale developments.

City officials have more immediate concerns, of course, like closing a budget deficit before the fiscal year ends. But there's no point minimizing this loss. Donald Eversley, the city's economic development director, said the Canyon Johnson proposal "was never a project as far as we were concerned." That comes as news to everyone paying attention the last few years.

The development focus returns, then, to smaller-scale deals, like the continuing rehabilitation of downtown office buildings into apartments and the growing chain of new restaurants on Fairfield Avenue. If there's a positive spin on the economic calamity, it's that these projects continue, albeit slowly, even through the slowdown.

If Bridgeport is ever to become self-sufficient again, it likely won't be on the strength of one or two mega-projects. Slow and steady is about the best city residents can hope for these days.

Sewer system at center of debate


Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch took office about a year ago with no way to know about the fiscal time bomb about to go off in his city. Years of easy credit and questionable mortgages were just beginning to yield the mountain of foreclosures that has hurt the entire country, and devastated places like Bridgeport.

As part of his election campaign, Finch promised a return to budgetary honesty. The recent past, he charged, had been rife with one-time budget items filling the gaps. It wasn't, he said, the right way to plan for the future. He was right then, and today, even as the budget situation deteriorates, he's still right.

That's why he's on dangerous ground with a plan to allow connection to the city sewer system by a development in Monroe. Under the terms of a proposed deal, the campus of a new Jewish Home for the Elderly on Main Street in Monroe would hook into the Bridgeport sewage system, already shared by Trumbull. There's nothing wrong with the idea, but Bridgeport must make sure it doesn't get fleeced in the process.

Finch is reportedly negotiating a one-time payment to the city in the $2 million range to compensate for use of the city's sewage system and treatment plants. That's money the city could desperately use as it tries to cover a $20 million budget gap, but it does not take into account the long-term outlook.

A smaller, regular payment makes more sense. Just as budgeting one-time payments for land sales does not make for sound accounting, this deal would do nothing for the city in future years, when the need could be just as great. The city could be in effect giving away its services for the foreseeable future.

A deal must also be contingent on a clear understanding of the scope of development. If Bridgeport decides its system can handle the Jewish Home, that should not be a green light for further development in Monroe to hook into the sewer lines without increased compensation.

The other issue, which the city denies is a problem, is capacity. There is no question that separating stormwater from regular sewer lines is in Bridgeport's long-term interest, and though it's not an issue likely to win many votes, it's the type of infrastructure upgrade the city needs to become and stay competitive.

It is worrying, though, to see questions arise about limited capacity, even if this project doesn't pose a problem. What will happen if development finally happens at the end of Main Street, at the former Pequonnock Apartments site and, most of all, Steel Point? Those and other projects represent quite a few new toilets flushing into the system. The city must make sure it has an adequate answer to that question.