September 26, 2014

Zoppo-Sassu: Let's get going with Renaissance

Statement on downtown by city Councilor Ellen Zoppo-Sassu:

Since elected officials were not allowed to comment at last week’s public hearing, I join my Democratic City Council colleagues, Calvin Brown and Mary Fortier, in issuing a statement on downtown so our constituents will know where we stand.  

My biggest concern at this time is the dueling perceptions of Bristol residents not wanting to invest in themselves. We CAN have a vibrant downtown. And I think we CAN address people’s concerns so that we achieve an outcome that the majority supports.

In 2005 the city wisely voted to purchase the old mall as a means of controlling our own destiny and shaping our own future. We wanted our citizens to come downtown for more than just city services.

Then, some potential plans called for a new Boys & Girls Club to be relocated on the Mall property, as well as a field house and some mixed use retail, office space and a parking structure. The voters who came to those public hearings objected to the land being used by entities that would not generate tax revenue. In late 2006, the Mall site was on the short list for the location of the new West Bristol School, but people again objected and the school was eventually built on a remote section of Chippens Hill.

Today, people are asking why the new Club, built on a small parcel on West Street, couldn’t have been built facing Brackett Park? Why is the new school as far west as it could possibly be while still being considered a Bristol school?  The fact that the hue and cry from angry citizens 10 years ago that prevented either of these plans from happening is indeed ironic. Recently the discussion has turned to more open space and a synthetic field from the school of "something is better than nothing" and "let’s get something going," even though the economic benefits of these scenarios would be marginal at best.

Are we destined to repeat history? I sure hope not. But our track record is not great for getting it right, dating back to the problems surrounding downtown urban renewal in the 1960s and early 1970s.

So what do I think today, after being back on the City Council for almost a year and being immersed (again) in a variety of reports, data, and public hearings on downtown?

First, I understand why people are opposed to investing $6 million of taxpayer money into a private investment when the economy is only slightly improving and people are watching every dollar. There are a lot of unknowns that would have to be hammered out with the City having an equity stake and deed restrictions if public money were part of the equation.

I understand that people want a say and are asking for a referendum. But what is the question? Are we asking taxpayers to approve the plan as presented, or is it about the $6 million that Renaissance asked for from the City?

They have now publicly stated that they are no longer asking for $6 million so this now appears to be off the table as a main argument for referendum.

Through the City’s 5 Year Capital Improvement Program, the City spends millions each year on projects that the taxpayers don’t even know about, much less have input into or for many, even know they are occurring or how they are funded.

For example, in the spring of 2013, the then-elected officials approved a $6 million renovation project for the Fire Department’s Engine 4 – a fire house located off of Route 229 next to the Public Works Yard and the Sewer Plant. Let’s just think about the irony of this for a minute – there is currently a $6 million project – the same amount as was being discussed for downtown - being launched for ONE fire house, in the southeast section of the city - that no one is talking about. A project that even many of the firefighters think is ridiculous.

The amount being spent would still be ridiculous if it was for the fire headquarters on North Main Street, but at least one could weakly argue that the $6 million would at least be benefiting a building that was more centrally visible and part of downtown.

So philosophically, if we are already bonding $6 million for a firehouse, why couldn’t we transfer that money to the downtown project that would benefit the entire community? Since it’s already budgeted, the taxpayers would feel nothing, and the Engine 4 fire house expansion could be put on the shelf for another year. Or better yet, put these large-ticket items up for referendum.

I know that Bristol has a lot of housing in the downtown area. Some of it has been the subject of code enforcement actions and we must also acknowledge that third floor apartments in restored Victorians do not appeal to all young professionals. I can support some new housing construction in downtown, but I have not supported the number of  housing units that Renaissance desires. I think that is too much density for this site but if they build it, I do hope they fill it with the type of sustained residential population that will represent the 7 day a week customer base that businesses need to thrive.  

I think we need to compromise and get the ball rolling. The City of Bristol should offer to partner with Renaissance with in-kind services to help them achieve their financial package needs. This would mean taking responsibility for the creation of the Piazza, roads and sidewalks, street lights, a shared parking plan for all parcels, and the necessary hook-ups for water and sewer. While this may amount to less than $2 million in city costs and services, it would be way to demonstrate support and buy-in in an area where the City has experience and ability.  The City can also be of assistance by continuing its aggressive marketing and business recruitment activities on other parcels that will bolster downtown – the recent sale of 10 Main Street, the former Press building and helping other downtown landlords fill their spaces – as well as supporting projects such as the Memorial Boulevard which is another piece of the puzzle.

I think both the Renaissance work and some of the recommendations of the Goman + York report go back to what we knew in 2005 – sometimes a public driver is needed to stimulate private investment. Whether it’s going to be a Piazza or skating rink or something else, the City of Bristol needs to have a role.  And I would really love to see ESPN involved as a partner in designing housing tailored to their employees’ needs.

Last spring, I talked to a number of local developers and real estate experts about their thoughts on downtown. One theme that did emerge from all of these separate conversations was making the project more manageable. Renaissance needs to be encouraged in their role as gatekeeper and the preferred developer to bring other developers to the table for the remaining parcels. We have design and zoning regulations for downtown in place and with careful, collaborative efforts, we could possibly have several developers at the table at the same time, all working with Renaissance to create a synergy for the 15 acres.

I like that the Mayor called a joint meeting of the BDDC and City Council. We all need to show leadership, keep the lines of communication open, and continue to work together and decide on a path that works for everyone and gets shovels in the ground sooner rather than later. While the Democrats have not been at the table for the negotiations, I think I speak for all of us when I say we are anxious to be part of the solution.

No downtowns are perfect. They are all, regardless of size and demographics, a work in progress with a mix of businesses that appeal to some people and not others. But if Southington, Plantsville, and New Britain can re-build their downtowns with a mix of government center, independent retail and restaurants and other activities, so can we.

In fact, we have a blank slate of 17 acres to draw our future. It’s time we got our paints and start putting color on the canvas. 

Copyright 2014 All rights reserved. Contact Steve Collins at scollins@bristolpress.com

September 24, 2014

Martin's online advertisement promises to turn Connecticut around

Here's an advertisement that Republican state Senate candidate Henri Martin has on YouTube:




Copyright 2014 All rights reserved. Contact Steve Collins at scollins@bristolpress.com

Fortier continues to back Renaissance

Democratic city Councilor Mary Fortier released this statement about Renaissance today:


I commend my fellow Council member Calvin Brown for his positive comments regarding the most recent Renaissance Downtowns presentation and public hearing.  I too, wish there had been an opportunity for the BDDC members and Councilors to offer their comments.
  
For any that don’t know, I have been a supporter of Renaissance Downtowns and continue to be.  I’d like to share some of the reasons why.  As the Preferred Developer for Depot Square they signed a contract with the city that contained pages and pages of requirements.  They have worked hard for years and have accomplished most of those requirements.  Their efforts at grassroots organizing and marketing for this project through Bristol Rising have certainly exceeded the requirements of the contract.  While the contract includes the basic mixed use outline for this project, including many hundreds of housing units, specifics like the piazza, which has become very popular, have grown out of the partnership with Renaissance and Bristol residents.  Renaissance and Bristol share a vision for a more vibrant, walkable, sustainable downtown.

Renaissance has made a commitment to Bristol and Renaissance deserves renewed commitment from us.  Renaissance has taken risks in Bristol and Bristol needs to move beyond the risk.  No one is banging down the doors of city hall for a chance to develop this parcel.  In our current downtown, incomes are below average and rents are below average. The age of our residents is older as is the housing they live in.  These demographics make this project risky.  The risk has always been part of this project, but these demographics are precisely the reason the project exists. If we had a strong thriving downtown, it wouldn’t matter what we built on Depot Square, a school, a hockey rink, or even just a hill, it would be a contribution to an already successful place.  If we don’t change the demographics of our downtown we risk not having a downtown at all.  We need younger residents, with higher incomes to change the balance in downtown.  “If we build it, they will come”, sounds like the dream from a movie, but if it doesn’t happen we will never have anything but a couple more drug stores on Depot Square.  Doing this project is risky, but not doing it is much riskier.

The current issue is financing Phase I.  As far back as the April submission, Renaissance discussed several options for closing the gap that exists in financing. The time has come to seriously explore every possible option.  For example, one such option is the CHAMP program.  “The CHAMP program can provide up to $5 million in gap financing for projects and would typically require as little as 20% to be workforce housing.”  Workforce housing is not Section 8 housing and it doesn’t become Section 8 housing.  We need to look into CHAMP financing and we are entitled to get an explanation as to why, or why it would not, be a viable option for this project.

I look forward to doing whatever I can to explore options, ask questions, and get answers so we can get this done and start building our future this spring.

Copyright 2014 All rights reserved. Contact Steve Collins at scollins@bristolpress.com

September 23, 2014

Pavalock opposes possible new taxes

Press release from Cara Pavalock, the Republican candidate for the 77th District state House seat in Bristol:

Pavalock: No New Taxes!

(Bristol)  Cara C. Pavalock, the Republican nominee for State Representative from the 77th Assembly District voices her concern over a proposal that has been floating around Connecticut that would drastically raise taxes in our state.

The proposal is called the “Land Valuation Tax.”  If implemented, this tax would be levied on all non-profits in Connecticut, such as hospitals, churches, museums, private schools, and the like. “This tax would have an adverse effect on these already struggling organizations in Bristol, and I am in strong opposition to it.” Pavalock said.

In addition to taxing non-profits, the proposal seeks to tax vacant land at a higher rate. Proponents of the tax claim there should be a higher rate for vacant land because it is not being used for its highest and best value. “Don’t residents pay enough in taxes already? Why are people being forced to build structures on their own private land?” Pavalock continued, “I agree that many municipalities are struggling to make ends meet in this tough economy, however, I also believe that the easiest thing the State can do to help local governments over the hump is to reduce the amount of unfunded mandates on the books.”

There have been recent seminars on the Land Valuation Tax and Pavalock fears that the proposal is gaining traction. Currently, local municipalities are receiving pilot funds for these non-profits and this tax would be used to alleviate some of the burdens on local governments and the State.

“Connecticut doesn’t have a revenue problem, it has a spending problem.” Pavalock added, “Instituting new taxes isn’t going to make Connecticut a better place to live, work, raise a family or retire.”
Pavalock has made unfunded mandates a cornerstone of her campaign and has pledged to oppose any piece of legislation that places new unfunded mandates on Connecticut’s municipalities.

“This new tax is most likely going to be debated by the General Assembly over the next few years,” Pavalock concluded, “Now is the time to ask your candidates where they stand on the issue and I want every resident of the 77th District to know that I stand with them in opposing any new taxes being implement in our great state.”

Copyright 2014 All rights reserved. Contact Steve Collins at scollins@bristolpress.com

September 18, 2014

Brown: Do not abandon plans for mall site

From city Councilor Calvin Brown:

As I was unable to fit my comments in at the end of the public hearing Tuesday night, I am releasing this statement in the hopes that my views on downtown redevelopment – as they stand right now – may be clear for my constituents.

First and foremost, I consider downtown redevelopment to be one of the most pressing issues of our time. In order to improve the quality of life for everyone, we need to attract more middle class families to live in our city, grow our tax base, and spur new economic activity at new, thriving, easily accessible businesses. Our top-rate school system, central location, and medium-size-town atmosphere make us an attractive option for young families, but we’re missing a few other key elements young people often look for when considering a place to live.

Chief among these considerations: a vibrant and walkable downtown. This vision can be realized in the City of Bristol. Retail, public green-space, and competitive housing are elements that I believe can truly revitalize our downtown area. For now, Renaissance is not only the singular company that has shown an interest in developing the downtown lot with this sort of focus, they are the only company that’s shown an interest in development – period. It is my belief that it is in the city’s best interest by far to continue to work with Renaissance to revise and refocus our efforts in good faith. To the many members of the public that disagree with assigning city dollars to the project: I hear you. To the many members of the public who say let’s give them the money and just get started: I hear you, too. But for now, Renaissance is willing to look at other options that do not include city money, and we need to let them try that.

In a perfect world I would prefer to see the City build the piazza ourselves, build the road through the parcel that will be required for future development, and commit to other infrastructure improvements surrounding downtown that will make the space more viable and attractive to investors and potential businesses. These are the investments every great community makes in themselves, and perhaps that is a more appropriate use of public money.

To members of the public that ask for a public referendum on the issue: I believe that until we have a plan to even potentially propose on a ballot, it is too soon to talk of a public referendum. If the plan can move ahead without any city money, a referendum won’t be necessary. If the plan cannot move ahead without city money, then the discussion of a public referendum will have to take place.

Regardless, however, as one of your elected officials I must make my position perfectly clear: the gigantic importance of revitalizing our downtown to get it thriving again makes the cost of doing nothing much too high. For now, that empty lot is a hole in our heart that requires thoughtful, surgical care. Abandoning this process now and delaying any movement there for an indeterminate amount of time could send our city into cardiac arrest. Getting the project moving, on the other hand – with new people and new businesses and new attractions in the heart of our great city – could beat new life into our veins.

One day, when I stroll the streets of my hometown with my own children, I want to be able to look them in the eye and say “look at what the people in our city came together to accomplish. Look at the heart of Bristol, which we strengthened for you.”

I don’t want to show them a seventeen acre graveyard of what could have been, and mutter softly, “I’m sorry.”

Copyright 2014 All rights reserved. Contact Steve Collins at scollins@bristolpress.com

September 17, 2014

City meeting would have been better

Since someone raised the issue in a Bristol Press story comment, I was ill last night. I would have much preferred to be at the downtown meeting.

Copyright 2014 All rights reserved. Contact Steve Collins at scollins@bristolpress.com

September 11, 2014

Michalik secures backing from teachers' union

Press release from Rob Michalik, the Democratic candidate for the 31st District state Senate seat:

Rob Michalik Endorsed by Public School Teachers 
Connecticut Education Association and American Federation of Teachers of Connecticut Endorse Rob Michalik for State Senate
September 10, 2014
Bristol CT – Democratic State Senate Candidate Rob Michalik, proudly announced the endorsement of his campaign by Connecticut’s public school teachers. Both the Connecticut Education Association (CEA) and the Connecticut affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) have voted to endorse Michalik for the November 4th General Election. The organizations collectively represent all of Connecticut’s public school teachers.
“Providing Connecticut children with a high quality education will equip them with the foundation necessary to succeed in todays fast pace enviroment,” said Michalik. “My opponent has a record of continuously making cuts to public education. This district needs a strong voice in the senate that work together with parents, administrators, teachers and taxpayers to ensure our students are receiving the best education in our schools.”
“Rob’s support for children, teachers and public education has been made clear and as a result our organization is proud to endorse your candidacy,” said CEA President Sheila Cohen.
"We need legislators in Hartford who will stand up for the district’s working families and lead on the issues that matter. We look forward to Rob joining with educators, healthcare professionals and state employees to fight for great schools, affordable, quality healthcare and strong public services," said Melodie Peters, president of AFT Connecticut, which also represents public schools' support staff, nurses and healthcare workers, higher education faculty, and state and municipal employees.
“It is imperative that we work to ensure that our communities receive their fair share of education funding from the state to reduce the burden placed on local property taxes,” added Michalik.  “Our students deserve the support, and our seniors and those with limited incomes can use the tax relief.”
The 31st state senate district consists of Bristol, Harwinton, Thomaston, Plainville and Plymouth.

Copyright 2014 All rights reserved. Contact Steve Collins at scollins@bristolpress.com

Larson: Put aside partisanship to defeat ISIS

Press release from U.S. Rep. John Larson, the East Hartford Democrat whose 1st District includes Bristol:

LARSON STATEMENT ON PRESIDENT’S ISIS REMARKS

(Washington) – Congressman John B. Larson released the following statement today:

“Thirteen years ago, at twilight on September the 11th, Democrats and Republicans stood in unity on the steps of the Capitol against a common threat. This evening, the President said we are best when we act together. He is right. We need to put aside the partisanship and electoral politics, as we did thirteen years ago, and come together to act in the common interests of the American people. This requires no profile in courage, but only that Congress engage and vote.

“The President’s remarks tonight should serve to unify the nation against the national and international threat of ISIS. I commend the President for consulting with our allies and building appropriate coalitions with NATO, members of the Arab League and the United Nations Security Council while informing the American people as well as Congressional Leadership of the threat that ISIS presents.

“Two things remain clear – a global and regional response is imperative and the mission and exit strategy must be clearly defined. On those two issues, Congress should be engaged.”

Copyright 2014 All rights reserved. Contact Steve Collins at scollins@bristolpress.com

September 10, 2014

Blumenthal coming to Bristol Saturday to back Michalik

Democratic state Senate candidate Rob Michalik press release:


MICHALIK ANNOUNCES FALL CAMPAIGN KICK­OFF EVENT WITH U.S SENATOR RICHARD BLUMENTHAL

Rob Michalik announced that the kick­off of his fall campaign for State Senate will be held at 430 North Main Street in Bristol at 11:00 a.m. on Saturday, September, 13th. U.S Senator Richard Blumenthal will be on hand for the event, as will other local Democratic candidates on the November ballot.
“I look forward to having residents from all five towns in the 31st senate district – Bristol, Harwinton, Plainville, Plymouth, and Thomaston – join me in working together to ensure a better future for our community,” said Michalik. “Anyone who wishes to help with the campaign, or simply to learn about our plans to strengthen the middle­class and grow the economy, is welcome to stop by our campaign headquarters on September13th.”
"Rob is an ardent advocate for consumer rights and growing our economy. He will be a strong voice for the people of the 31st district,” said Senator Blumenthal. “With his experience, particularly in economic development, he has the background and qualifications to serve his constituents well. I am excited to join with him and other local candidates for this kick­off event.”
WHAT: Michalik Fall Campaign Kick­off
WHEN: Saturday September 13
th at 11:00 a.m.
WHERE: 430 North Main St., Bristol, CT, next to Super Natural


Copyright 2014 All rights reserved. Contact Steve Collins at scollins@bristolpress.com

Welch blasts early release program for prisoners

Press release from state Sen. Jason Welch, a Bristol Republican:

Sen. Welch Comments on the Flawed Risk Reduction Earned Credit Program

Bristol-State Senator Jason Welch released a statement today after Republican Senators called for a change to the Connecticut’s flawed Risk Reduction Earned Credit program (RREC). On Tuesday, a judge in New Britain arraigned Arthur Hapgood, a beneficiary of the RREC, for murdering his infant niece. Hapgood was released 233 days early after he failed multiple drug tests and continued to demonstrate disturbing behavior while incarcerated.

“Justice is underway for a little girl from Bristol whose life was senselessly cut short,” said Welch. “No policy change can retrieve a life that has already been destroyed. However, the state has an obligation to change a system which released a dangerous felon, who obviously had not been rehabilitated, before he served his full term. Criminals are taken off our streets for a reason. They should stay off our streets, and the State of Connecticut should keep its promise to the victims and their families.”

The RREC is the state’s latest attempt to reduce recidivism. The program launched in 2011. Many risk reduction credit recipients have gone on to commit heinous crimes shortly after release. Republican Senators are looking to address this public safety concern.

Jason Welch (www.senatorwelch.com) represents the 31st Senatorial District, which includes the towns of Bristol, Plainville, Plymouth, Thomaston, and Harwinton. He can be reached at 800.842.1421. You can follow Senator Welch on Facebook at www.facebook.com/SenatorWelch.

Copyright 2014 All rights reserved. Contact Steve Collins at scollins@bristolpress.com

September 9, 2014

Joint session to discuss Depot Square on Sept. 16


Embattled developer Renaissance Downtowns will get a chance to make the case for its proposed Depot Square project next week before a joint session of the City Council and the Bristol Downtown Development Corp.
The 6 p.m. Tuesday meeting at City Hall is billed as a public hearing where the Long Island developer will speak first and then anyone else who wants to weigh in will have the opportunity.
Mayor Ken Cockayne said city officials won’t make any decisions Tuesday. They just want to listen to what people have to say, he said.
“It’s an opportunity for the public to speak to both boards,” Cockayne said. LINK FOR MORE

Copyright 2014 All rights reserved. Contact Steve Collins at scollins@bristolpress.com

September 8, 2014

Mum Parade signups end Friday

The deadline to participate in this year’s Mum Parade has been extended until Friday.
Jack Ferraro, one of the parade coordinators, said they are providing extra time so schools and others who had the summer off have a chance to join in.
“We just want to be fair to everyone,” Ferraro said.
The parade is closing in a hundred applications so far – a good turnout – and more are expected this week.
The 53rd annual festival will include activities along Memorial Boulevard all day on Saturday, Sept. 27 and the yearly downtown parade starting at 1:30 p.m. the following day. It is one of the biggest parades in Connecticut.
Retired police officer and longtime American Legion official Bob Coffey is the parade marshal, while former city Councilor David Mills and Michele Boyko, a movie producer, are slated to serve as masters of ceremony.
The parade, which can go on for hours, includes everything from dance troupes to elaborate floats. There are typically thousands of people watching along the way.
It is not necessary for participants to be from Bristol.
To sign up to participate, go online to tinyurl.com/mz6l3lf.


Copyright 2014 All rights reserved. Contact Steve Collins at scollins@bristolpress.com