NAUGATUCK — Contrary to popular opinion, General DataComm’s apparent unwillingness to sell its property at 6 Rubber Avenue will not be the biggest impediment to the Renaissance Place project in 2010—the biggest stopping block will be a tight-fisted, cash-strapped public sector and a skittish private investment market, according to first-term Democratic Mayor Bob Mezzo.
Alexius Conroy, CEO of Conroy Development, could not provide details of negotiations with General DataComm but said the phasing of the project as a whole could be revisited to accommodate the lack of that property.
“There’s still an ultimate goal of including the entire central business district in Renaissance Place,” Mezzo said, “and eventually that will happen, but we have to face the realities that we don’t own certain parcels, and property owners within those areas are exercising their rights to do with their parcels what they will.”
Mezzo believes that public-sector investment in Renaissance Place will be the project’s taking-off point. Not only will public dollars help fund real construction and development, but also they could well be “the impetus required to convince financial institutions that Renaissance Place is worthy of investment.”
“We need extra support and commitment from the public sector to loosen up investment markets because of the state of the economy,” Mezzo said. “Those financial institutions—and they’re few and far between—that are investing in projects are exercising scrutiny in deciding where to lend.”
“I think a lot of economists feel that the economy is going to loosen up in the second or third quarter this year,” added Naugatuck Economic Development Corporation CEO Dave Prendergast. “I don’t think it’s going to be like opening the floodgates. It’s going to be a process.”
If investment capital can be secured, Mezzo said, the proverbial shovel could hit dirt in 2010. Prendergast agreed. He said once the new municipal development plan, which will be completed “in the next 60 days,” is approved, the project can go to design.
Conroy, the developer, expressed reservations about timetabling the project, admitting that progress is “totally dependent on the financial markets.”
“Banks aren’t lending,” he said. “I can’t predict when that’s going to change. The government seems to be caught up in other issues, such as health care. Until that gets sorted out, you really can’t look forward to predicting any kind of time schedule, at least in my mind.”
Despite his hopeful attitude regarding government investment in the project, Mezzo conceded that the state’s budget is in no condition to provide significant stimulus. The Hartford Courant has reported the state is projected to face a almost-$6 billion budget deficit by 2013, with no rainy-day fund and little borrowing capacity left to help offset the deficit.
And though Naugatuck has seen some aid from federal stimulus programs, that money is generally designated for specific purposes through a state-level agency and cannot be otherwise diverted by local officials.
“I don’t want to paint it with a broad brush,” Mezzo added, “but I think the state has good intentions and that they understand some of the peripheral issues facing municipalities, but someone in the state agency doesn’t necessarily understand what’s best for Naugatuck.”
Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, who represents Connecticut’s third district in the U.S. House of Representatives, seemed to agree with that sentiment.
“I think that local leaders know their communities’ needs best, and they should be able to allocate and use funds in the ways that would be most helpful,” she wrote in e-mail correspondence with Citizen’s News. “That said, there are larger projects, such as interstate systems and electricity grids that need to be dealt with in a broader sense.”
DeLauro added her office has been working to “make sure the Naugatuck area—and Renaissance Place in particular—is not overlooked by the federal government.”
But at the same time, she wrote, “there are not a lot of unobligated [federal] stimulus dollars left at this point. … Ideally, the funding for this project should be a mix of federal, state, and private—and we are working to make sure the government does its part.”
Regardless of when and how public-sector funding might find its way into the Renaissance Place coffer, the general sentiment seems to be that the transit-oriented, mixed-use, green development model is one the state and federal governments have long promoted, and thus the project should be the first in line when some of those monies are freed up.
“We’ve been doing everything Hartford and Washington have been advising for years,” Mezzo said. “Other communities are asking for planning grants … we’ve already done the planning, we’ve organized [the NEDC], found our developer, [Conroy], and had the most public community conversation possible, in terms of the [May 2007] referendum. The borough has done everything we need to do, according to the so-called experts, but the state and federal governments don’t seem willing to provide any help.”
“We’re still optimistic” about securing investment capital, Prendergast, the NEDC CEO, added. “We’ve felt all along that our project had all the elements of … the new approach. It has all the transportation-oriented, green energy, live-work-play elements wrapped into one.”
And even beyond that, Mezzo said, the borough, at least in some sense, deserves a helping hand.
“We helped build this region, this state, and in many instances, this country in terms of our industrial capacity and success,” he said. “Through two world wars and numerous other military conflicts, the borough was a significant contributor to the war effort. Our people have one of the strongest work ethics you can find, and have made a history for Naugatuck of how well we can make things.”
But Mezzo doesn’t want anyone to think Naugatuck is looking for a handout. To the contrary, he said, investment in the Renaissance Place project would help the borough to become more self-sufficient in the long run.
“A cynic might say the borough is begging,” he said, “but we’re not begging for something that didn’t require a lot of forethought. [Renaissance Place] will benefit [the state and federal] governments because Naugatuck will become more self-sufficient. … Manufacturing to the extent the borough knew it is not coming back. We want to be self-sustaining to the best of our abilities. It’s cheaper to invest in Naugatuck now than to be the distributor of operating revenue for years to come.”