Bill Finch took office as mayor of Connecticut’s largest city in December of 2007. Assuming he fills out this second four-year term he will become one of the longest-serving mayors in city history surpassed only by Republican Clifford Wilson, Democrat Joe Ganim and Socialist Jasper McLevy. The budget Finch will soon propose to the City Council will arguably be his most difficult with so many unknowns because the city is largely a slave to the state legislative process in Hartford that decides the city’s share of the pie.
Roughly 40 percent of the city’s general fund revenues, according to city bean counters, comes from the state. A dip here and there and well, it’s a budgetary nightmare.
The mayor on Tuesday put on his brightest public face–it’s his nature–to the regional business community puffing optimism in the face of an upcoming dire budget he’ll propose to the City Council. The reality is can you remember the last mayor who stepped before this group and screamed the economy sucks, the governor’s budget proposal sucks, city development has lagged beyond expectation, we’re getting screwed and everyone’s gotta take a bite out of a turd sandwich?
Be it Joe Ganim, John Fabrizi or Finch–mayors for the past 20 years–they all preen optimistically. A lot of it is crap, but you posture because you’re standing before folks who either do business in the city or consider investing. You put on your brightest face in an effort to build enthusiasm.
You look around the city and there’s legitimate optimism Downtown with a resurgence in new housing, restaurants and cultural destinations–Webster Bank Arena, Harbor Yard, Downtown Cabaret, Bijou Theatre–as well as new school construction in neighborhoods and the potential of the long-awaited redevelopment of the city’s East Side at Steel Point where mega outdoor retailer Bass Pro Shops plans its first urban enterprise. But the city’s progress, such as it is, is fragile.
Democratic Governor Dan Malloy has not yet stepped up with the force of his will to make things happen in Bridgeport, and in fact his state budget proposal strips revenues from the city. Malloy has directed a number of new businesses to Stamford where he served as mayor in his comfort zone, but nothing yet truly appreciable to Bridgeport beyond money for some housing initiatives. Governors can make a difference. Lowell Weicker, who served from 1991 to 1995, was a benevolent dictator on behalf of the city, engineering developments and directing new revenues to the city that started a period of 10 straights years without a tax increase.
But Finch must do his part as well to position the city for growth. In nearly five and a half years as mayor, what economic development projects can he truly call his own? They are Downtown with the housing development 333 State Street as well as the expansion of the Bijou Square development by Phil Kuchma that started under Fabrizi. The mayor has some other base hits here and there. If Bass Pro Shops happens it provides Finch a legacy.
The mayor’s office says Finch also deserves credit for a number of other initiatives such as:
— Reopening Pleasure Beach to the public–and pushing federal and state agencies to get the approvals needed to move forward.
— Advancing his BGreen 2020 plan forward, leading to businesses in the South End and West End, such as the mattress recycling factory, FLexipave and Bridgeport Biodiesel, as well as a partnership with Dominion and Fuel Cell Energy to build a fuel cell power plant in Bridgeport.
— Downtown North is moving forward with five developers ready to start work on repairing and redeveloping buildings.
— A new park on Knowlton Street in place of blighted buildings that recapture city’s waterfront.
— The greatest number of homes built in conjunction with Habitat for Humanity–turning blighted buildings into owner-occupied homes–and putting them back on the tax rolls.
The budget Finch proposes in early April will truly be a leap of faith, with so many unknowns that will play out in the state budgetary process.