My former client Donald Trump is planning a campaign stop at the majestic Klein Memorial Auditorium 12:30 Saturday afternoon in advance of Tuesday’s Republican presidential primary in Connecticut, according to his website. For tickets see here. He may very well talk about his experiences in Bridgeport, his interest in developing Pleasure Beach back in the day and how he deeded to the city the tax-delinquent property that is now the ballpark at Harbor Yard, home of the Bridgeport Bluefish. There’s more to it than that. An excerpt follows from my book Only In Bridgeport that sets up the hotly contested 1995 state legislative proposal to expand casino gaming in Bridgeport. I was then a Trump media consultant. Joe Ganim was mayor. John Rowland, governor.
A major issue of the 1994 gubernatorial campaign was the expansion of casino gaming in Connecticut beyond the wildly successful Foxwoods casino in the rural town of Ledyard. Bridgeport’s untapped waterfront drew the attention of the highest of the high gaming operatives such as Steve Wynn, Donald Trump and the Mashantucket Pequots, operators of Foxwoods, all of whom proposed upwards of billion-dollar gaming establishments. Rowland supported gaming expansion in Bridgeport. Democratic candidate Bill Curry was against it. Ganim, the candidate for lieutenant governor, was in the odd position of agreeing with his running mate’s opponent. Bridgeport was in need of an economic shot in the arm. To Ganim, the gaming expansion was about bringing jobs, entertainment and tax dollars into the city.
In a non-binding referendum in March of 1995, city voters overwhelmingly approved a legislative vote on the issue. Both Wynn and the Mashantuckets spent millions lobbying the state legislature for approval while Trump did his part to torpedo the gaming bill, in a move to protect his Atlantic City interests from Connecticut cannibalism. Trump’s attitude was supremely capitalistic. “If expanded gaming is going to happen in Bridgeport, I want it,: he would say. “If I can’t have it, I want to kill it.” Trump unleashed his lobbyists to stop anyone else from getting in on the action, especially his archenemy Wynn. The two gaming moguls have spent many years devising tactics to blow up one another’s gaming proposals.
Robert Zeff, owner of the Bridgeport Jai Alai fronton, had a particular stake in the gaming legislation. He had secured state approval to transform jai alai into a greyhound track with the hope of installing hundreds of slot machines in his parimutuel facility. Zeff was Wynn’s local entrée, working to approve the gaming bill as furiously as Trump fought it.
Opponents to the gaming bill had significant legislative support, particularly from lower Fairfield County legislators, who cited traffic congestion, health issues and gambling addictions as reasons enough to derail the bill. In the end, the new governor could not convince his own Republican legislative base to support gaming in Bridgeport. Despite an impassioned plea on the senate floor from Bridgeport State Senator Alvin Penn, one of the spearheads of the gaming bill, the state senate voted down the bill. Bridgeporters experienced an ugly gaming hangover.
The setback was like a punch to Ganim’s gut and it became clearer waterfront revival would require a non-gaming action plan. An investment group led by former Bridgeport Hydraulic Company chief executive officer Jack McGregor, his wife Mary-Jane Foster and Physicians Health Services founder Mickey Herbert convinced city leaders that minor-league baseball would trigger community pride and an economic jolt like nothing in the city in decades. The location for a baseball stadium that intrigued Ganim and his Economic Development Director Michael Freimuth was the vacant Jenkins Valve building in the South End. Located right off Interstate 95, the five-acre parcel was owned by Donald Trump who purchased the industrial warhorse as a prospective site for a gaming facility.
When the gaming bill failed to pass the State Senate, Trump lost interest in transforming the land. He also lost interest in paying roughly $300,000 in property taxes. “The assessment on this building is crazy,” Trump would say. “I’ve never seen anything like it.” Over the years, Ganim and Trump had developed a friendly relationship. One spring day in 1997, Trump fired off a letter to Ganim griping about the injustice of having to pay an extravagant tax bill for an industrial eyesore. Attaching copies of the tax bills to his letter, Trump explained he wanted to explore a way to turn the building over to the city for a viable use.
Ganim wasn’t about to shed any tears for the Manhattan billionaire, but Trump’s lamenting triggered a Ganim idea. With Trump’s letter in hand the mayor dialed up The Donald and asked him to sign the deed to the property over to the city. Two polished negotiators were at work. Since he knew Trump wanted out of the building, Ganim felt the city was in a greater negotiating position. If Ganim had initiated the offer, The Donald most assuredly would have asked for a price tag well beyond the cost of the taxes. Ganim got his location for the ballpark and Trump walked away from the building.