Strategy. Anticipation. Communication. Strong department heads. They’re all factors in effective governing.
Every few months we go around and around on this issue: what to do with the former Remington Arms plant on the East Side, controlled by developer Sal DiNardo, that caught fire (again) on Saturday.
The place is a shithole. It’s been a shithole for years. As I’ve written here before, if the city called Donald Trump, Steve Wynn, Bill Gates or General Electric and said we’ll give you this property, ya know what they’d say? No, thank you. Why? Because the clean-up is $5 to $10 million, depending what you do there, maybe even higher.
A few months after Mayor Bill Finch took office in 2007 he announced that there’s a “new sheriff in town” to take on tax deadbeats, and one of those in his scope was DiNardo, someone the mayor had called lots of times for campaigns donations, called him his friend, invited him to his wedding, invited him into his home for dinner, had been a guest at Sal’s beach home in Fairfield many times. The new sheriff was gonna take on Sal. Bill thought it was good public relations value beating up DiNardo. (It’s not personal, it’s just PR, that’s the way the mayor rationalized it.) The mayor was strategically flaccid then, and now he’s forced to say something publicly every time there’s a fire. Wouldn’t it have been nice a few years ago if the mayor had asked himself, will I be dealing with this in an election year?
It’s easy to say take the property in court. The city can do that for back taxes. Okay, what does the city do with it? Nothing. Why? Nobody wants it. The best course more than two years ago, when the mayor opted for show horse over work horse, was to make it more than a tax issue. It’s a public safety and public health issue. That’s what he needed to scream then rather than the PR puffery that went nowhere. Better to have said look Sal, we don’t expect you to transform this place overnight, but at least start taking portions of it down, bit by bit. That East Side site has been a shithole for years, no doubt. Show us some goodwill, we’ll develop performance standards and tax incentives based on progress, but start taking down the monster.
Voters aren’t moved when a chief executive says we’re gonna do this and we’re gonna do that and nothing’s been done. No one’s going to vote for Finch because he has a public spitting match with a developer and it leads to nothing. They want to see some progress. Had the mayor had a workable strategy a few years ago a portion of the eyesore would now be down, and Finch could point to progress heading into an election year instead of regurgitating the same old line.
DiNardo scouts properties few others want to develop in the hope he can buy them cheap, fix them and rent or flip them for a profit. Sometimes he absorbs a tax liability. Sometimes he seeks a tax break from the city. And sometimes he ends up his own worst enemy in how he conducts business like filing a lawsuit against the city several years ago after a fall he took at the municipal golf course. He’s not a sympathetic figure. But he can get stuff done. Turning him into a marketable monster is not going to cure the problem.
DiNardo spent millions of his own money cleaning a portion of the old Bridgeport Brass, received a tax break from the city, and now Bridgeport actually has a tax generator on Housatonic Avenue now occupied by United Rentals. Even if Sal throws up his hands and says okay, take the property, then what? Nothing will be done for years. Now the site will be an election issue because the city didn’t act.
Jimmy’s Obama Calculation
In the fall of 1994 I received a phone call from campaign handlers for Democratic gubernatorial nominee Bill Curry. Lennie, we have good news and bad news. The good news is Clinton’s coming to campaign for us. The bad news is you have to help organize it in Bridgeport. Organizing a presidential visit is a big pain in the ass, Secret Service, advance staff, media. It was exciting but no fun. Why me? I was campaign manager to Joe Ganim, Curry’s running mate. This was roughly two years after Bill Clinton’s election and his polling numbers sucked. No one wanted to be seen with the president. That’s not so unusual for midterm elections.
The Curry campaign made the right decision under the circumstances, they needed Clinton. Why? To raise money. Curry had just come off an upset win in the primary over party-endorsed John Larson and was financially drained. Republican candidate John Rowland had oodles of dough. So Clinton came into Bridgeport and raised loads of dough for the Curry-Ganim ticket at a time no one wanted Clinton around. Clinton, in fact, was pleased at the thousands of folks that showed up at Sikorsky Memorial Airport to greet him. Connecticut, at least, was a presidential draw. Curry didn’t win, lost by a few points, but Clinton didn’t forget Curry. He gave him a job in the White House.
So now, the debate is on (not relative to Dem guber nominee Dan Malloy who’s in good shape with $6 million to spend) but with freshman Dem Congressman Jim Himes who faces a difficult challenge from Republican Dan Debicella. Does Jimmy embrace a Barack visit? If Barack wants to come, do it as a fundraiser. Don’t run for the tall grass. In this environment of financial trepidation Himes is going to live and die on the major initiatives in which he supported the president–stimulus and health care. Running away from Barack translates into Himes running away from his voting record.
If Himes runs, Fairfield County voters will smell a skunk.