When it came to the art of negotiation, Bridgeport business leader Ernie Trefz was a marvel. Almost everything with Ernie who died Saturday morning was subject to give and take. (Trefz services here.) Former Bridgeport Economic Development Director Mike Freimuth, now executive director of the Capital Regional Development Authority, was sometimes on the other side of that negotiation. He shares a story from 25 years ago after Ernie purchased the Hilton Hotel Downtown that Ernie converted into the Holiday Inn. Lowell Weicker was governor, Joe Ganim had begun year one of his first mayoralty and negotiations took place for the state to take control of the Bridgeport train station to help the cash-strapped city.
It was 1992, the city was in financial crisis, JG1 in office. Ernie had acquired the Hilton from Bob Schwartz and had a $300,000 tax problem at the hotel that was part of a larger refinancing scheme critical to keeping the hotel open. Meanwhile, we (the city) were trying to ‘off load’ the train station onto the state. It had an annual $300,000 operating cost. But the state (CDOT) would only take the train station if we would give it 127 parking spaces (the number is a whole other story) in ‘Ernie’s garage’ (the former bus terminal garage on Middle/John that Ernie acquired from Schwartz as part of the city preferred developer package dating back to the John Mandanici days). Ah! The seeds of a deal.
Simple, Ernie gives the city 127 spaces, the city gives him a tax deal worth $300k, 127 spaces go to DOT and the State takes train station and we save $300k. City is net even. The train station burden is lifted and capital upgrades are queued from the State. The Hilton Hotel stays open. Multiple crises averted. Poetry.
But like all deals, the details were brutal. Ernie was a pretty hard negotiator, even though he had a hotel monster hanging on him. He didn’t want to give up anything in the garage and played coy, musing that he had no clue as to why he had to see the train guys to save his hotel. In the end, the deal went through and the paperwork is probably all lost in some flooded city hall basement. But the deal was sealed only after the DOT official threw his hands up in frustration and tossed his tootsie roll candy from his pocket onto the table screaming: “Damn it Ernie, you can have my (bleeping) tootsie roll too.”
Ernie had quietly purchased the hotel to keep some level of downtown effort underway. The building was only a few years old, Ernie had several large holdings in the downtown but it was dire times in Bridgeport. The city had filed bankruptcy, four local banks had just been closed and even the local gas company was talking about leaving. It was guys like Ernie who quietly worked late into the evenings as we wrestled our way through those difficult early 1992 days. Thank goodness for his efforts.