In Stratford, a long-dormant industrial property may finally have found a savior

 

 

Think of it as the ultimate white elephant.

The Stratford Army Engine Plant (SAEP) occupies 77 acres of eminently developable property near the mouth of the Housatonic River, across Main Street from Sikorsky Airport.

The reason the property is developable, but not developed, is what renders it a white elephant — the product of decades of contamination from industrial waste that all parties agree will take many millions of dollars to remediate. And therein lies the rub.

Previous redevelopment schemes over the past two decades — and there have been many — have foundered on the issue of the cost of environmental remediation. The U.S. Army is happy to be rid of the property for little or no remuneration, but has made it clear it will not fund a cleanup. And the town of Stratford, which would eagerly like to see the site returned to productive use, faces its own fiscal challenges that preclude even partial funding of a cleanup.

Now, however, a new potential developer has emerged. Last October Point Stratford Renewal (PSR) forged an agreement with the Army to acquire the vacant property and pursue a mixed-use development for residential. commercial, retail and recreational applications.

PSR is in fact a partnership of three Connecticut companies: Loureiro Properties, LLC, Development Resources, LLC and Sedgwick Partners, LLC. The principals had hoped to close the property transfer from the Army by the end of 2014, but now acknowledge that the deal may not be consummated before 2015.

What lends this latest proposal hope for success where previous efforts have faltered is state legislation, passed in May and taking effect July 1, to create a new, special tax district — or “infrastructure improvement district,” in Hartford bureaucratese — that would help to pay for the environmental cleanup of the site, as well as the roads, utilities, sewers and other improvements essential to breathing new life into the long-dormant property.

Under the law, the newly created district would be empowered to levy taxes and issue bonds to pay for infrastructure improvements and cleanup, certain to run into the millions of dollars.

“With a clear plan to financing infrastructure improvements we can move forward with remediation, redevelopment and progress,” said Stratford State Sen. Kevin C. Kelly (R-21) “This will grow a new neighborhood, complete with residential areas and space for recreation and commerce. It is time to bring jobs to Stratford and transform unused space into a center for business, entertainment and growth for years to come.”

“Stratford has waited 20 years to see this property return to productive use and this is another positive step in that direction,” added Stratford State Rep. Terry Backer (D-121). “This bill helps in the redevelopment of these 80 acres and hopefully employment, housing and grand list expansion.”

Perhaps. One remaining obstacle is posed by the state’s Department of Energy & Environmental Protection (DEEP), which must reach agreement with the Army regarding the extent to which the Housatonic riverbed adjacent to the property must be cleaned up before redevelopment can commence. A DEEP analysis is in process and results are expected to be announce by the end of this month.

Sited on what before 1927 was farmland, the SAEP was originally built in 1929 as Sikorsky Aero Engineering Corp.'s manufacturing facility. Later Sikorsky would consolidate its manufacturing operations to the present-day plant a few miles up the Housatonic River near the Shelton town line.

The property later was operated by the Lycoming division of Avco Corp., which manufactured engine components there. At its height in 1968 the facility employed 10,000 workers.

In 1976, the plant was acquired by the U.S. Army and renamed the Stratford Army Engine Plant. In 1987 Avco was purchased by Textron to become Textron Lycoming and in 1995, Allied Signal acquired the Lycoming Turbine Engine Division in Stratford. By this time, employment in the plant had declined to 2,900 workers.

In July 1995 the Base Realignment and Closure initiative of the Department of Defense recommended shuttering the plant. Later that year Allied Signal announced that production would be shifted to its facility in Phoenix, Az. Three years later Allied Signal concluded operations in the plant and returned it to the U.S. Army. It has been idle ever since — a silent sentinel along the Housatonic sitting atop seven decades’ worth of industrial contamination including waste oil, fuels, solvents and paints.

Stratford occupies an odd enough socioeconomic niche among southern Connecticut communities that even town residents don’t always agree on what exactly it is. In Fairfield County but not of it, the town of 50,000 is walled off from tony Gold Coast communities such as Westport by the state’s largest city — Bridgeport — one of the poorest American cities in one of the nation’s wealthiest counties.

Residents of working-class neighborhoods such as the South End argue — not without a measure of pride — that Stratford is a “blue-collar town” (the town’s largest employer is Sikorsky Aircraft). On the other hand, the gracious 18th-century Colonials of the town’s historic district house college professors, lawyers and other professionals who lend the neighborhood a decided white-collar feel.

Fish or fowl? Residents don’t always, or even often, agree. But today, hope springs eternal — even in Stratford, where a plucky band of starry-eyed neighborhood activists have been working tirelessly to resurrect the hulking Shakespeare Festival Theater, which went dark a quarter-century ago. This, despite tepid enthusiasm and even outright opposition from those in Town Hall who would prefer to see the 60-year-old wooden structure razed and the 15-acre riverfront property sold to a private developer and returned to the tax rolls.

Some Stratford residents ponder their town’s “post-Sikorsky future” — whether as a Shelton-like condominium nest, or as a cultural attraction anchored by the Shakespeare theater and buttressed by a beautiful historic district and gracious boutiques and restaurants.

In Stratford Town Hall, at least, officials are optimistic an SAEP deal will get done. “The developers for the Stratford Army Engine Plant site continue to be encouraged by the interest of both potential users and tenants, as well as local, state and federal officials in getting the site cleaned up and redeveloped,” says Marc Dillon, chief of staff to Stratford Mayor John Harkins.

“The focus on cleanup and reuse of contaminated properties by Mayor John Harkins and his administration has led to significant grants from the state and federal governments for assessment and cleanup of brownfield sites,” adds Dillon. “This has increased interest in economic development throughout Stratford.”

Perhaps. But Stratford residents who have been through the redevelopment wars will believe it when they see it.