From Brian Lockhart, CT Post:
The University of Bridgeport banners lining Park Avenue at the seaside campus read: “A World of Opportunities.”
For Democratic Mayor Bill Finch, UB’s 56 acres, 4,877 students and 900 employees might as well be a world away, not in the city’s South End.
Finch fancies himself a forward thinker when it comes to running Connecticut’s largest municipality, but his relationship with one of Bridgeport’s most prominent institutions is mired two decades in the past.
The feud dates to the early 1990s, when then-councilman Finch strove mightily and unsuccessfully to stop the controversial Unification Church–the “Moonies”–from coming to the bankrupt UB’s rescue in exchange for 60 percent of the seats on the board of trustees.
Finch, formerly the university’s assistant director of alumni relations, shared critics’ views that the church was a dangerous, brainwashing cult that wanted UB as a recruitment machine. He then fought to try to have the state strip UB’s accreditation.
“These guys came in and were pretty vicious,” recalled Michael Stratton, the attorney who worked with Finch and others to fight the bailout in court. “They held no prisoners and wanted that institution … (And) these banks getting paid off were very powerful people who wanted these loans paid off and made damn sure we weren’t able to establish our case.”
But since the late 1990s the school has been able to stand on its own financially. And the city’s and state’s movers and shakers, from Connecticut’s congressional delegation on down to local public school officials and business leaders, have long-since embraced UB as a partner.
Attended the annual, Finch-supported Gathering of the Vibes music festival at Seaside Park? Organizers use UB for housing and other amenities.
UB still faces challenges. Bloomberg Businessweek recently listed the university 17th on a list of the top 20 colleges with high tuition and low rates of return, behind Sacred Heart University in Fairfield (8th) and the University of New Haven (15th).
The university vigorously disputed the findings as flawed, telling Bloomberg 100 percent of graduates from two of its most prominent majors–dental hygiene and design–landed positions in last summer’s brutal jobs market.
“What it is today … is an incredible turnaround story,” said Paul Timpanelli, CEO of the Bridgeport Regional Business Council.
Meanwhile Finch spent the last 20 years nurturing his contempt.
Imagine, some say, what UB could be if the mayor embraced the school as a partner to boost economic development and improve education?
“It’s just sad. It’s personal and counter productive for the good of Bridgeport,” said Christopher Shays, a resident and former Republican congressman who delivered UB’s 1997 commencement address. “It’s making the job of the university more difficult, to the detriment of the city.”
Finch avoids the campus and leaves unavoidable official interactions with the UB community to subordinates.
In April, for example, UB hosted a national gymnastics championship attended by Democrats U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal and Gov. Dannel Malloy. Finch, according to school officials, sent City Council President Thomas McCarthy, D-133.
“We have made it very clear to the mayor and various members of his administration he is welcome any time,” said Mary-Jane Foster, UB’s vice president of university relations for the past few years. Co-founder of the Bridgeport Bluefish, Foster is a Finch ally turned political opponent.
Some consider Finch’s current behavior an improvement; at least, they say, he is no longer publicly bad-mouthing the school, like in 2009 when he lamented to Hearst Newspapers that the city deserves a strong university, not one run by “a criminal organization.”
“When Finch first came in (to the mayor’s office in 2007) this was a big topic of conversation and he said some things, they said some things,” recalled Joseph McGee of the Business Council of Fairfield County, who helps advise the city on economic matters.
Finch had said he might revisit his stance on UB once Korean minister Sun Myung Moon, the Moonies’ leader, died.
Moon died in September.
Asked last week if his administration’s icy relationship with UB has since thawed, Finch smiled and said, “Happy Thanksgiving.”
“That’s it. That’s all I’m going to say,” Finch responded when further pressed on whether UB is a resource for building the city’s economy.
Lennie Grimaldi, a longtime friend of the mayor’s who ran his successful 2000 race for state Senate, said Finch is a stubborn man.
“It can be a blessing because he’s extremely dogged in wanting to get things done for the city,” said Grimaldi, host of the online Only in Bridgeport news site. “But he can be also so stubborn that sometimes he doesn’t always see the larger picture.”
Appeals to Finch’s office for a more substantive explanation of his views resulted in a statement from spokesman Elaine Ficarra that emphasized the city and university have “a strong, collaborative relationship.” She cited pavement and sidewalk repairs and other streetscape improvements; a joint project to repair a softball diamond within adjacent Seaside Park for use by both high school and UB girls’ teams; and educational collaborations with Bridgeport’s public schools, including offering seniors free college-level courses.
Foster and George Estrada, UB’s associate vice president for facilities and safety, acknowledged UB works well with city agencies and, if not Finch, staff in his office. And Finch tapped Estrada, Bridgeport’s former director of facilities, to sit on the mayor’s Charter Revision Commission.
“I get nothing but cooperation from the city when we deal with them on everything from public safety issues to construction projects,” Estrada said. “To me if the mayor really was to object there was a relationship, there wouldn’t be one at all.”
But Foster said regardless of the support UB enjoys from other city entities, the mayor does damage by withholding his endorsement.
“We’d be in an even better place than we are,” she said. “We can do it without him. But having the mayor as your advocate is by far better.”
Shays agreed, arguing Finch has the power and influence to “make things happen” for the mutual benefit of UB and the city.
“Reverend Moon passed away. He doesn’t have to wrap his arms around the church. He just has to wrap his arms around the university,” he said.
Judith Greiman, long-time head of the Connecticut Conference of Independent Colleges, declined to comment specifically on the Finch/UB feud.
“Sometimes there are little spats about construction, sometimes about noisy students. But I’d say generally communities embrace the colleges in them,” she said. “And it’s helpful to have a close working relationship with the chief elected official in any college town.”
Greiman said such symbiotic alliances help attract major tax-paying employers and aid universities in their efforts to grow and improve.
“Colleges bring people into the municipality. People are visiting campus, spending dollars,” Greiman said.
According to a UB economic impact study, alumni, faculty, students and visitors contribute $47 million to Bridgeport’s $3 billion economy.
Phil Kuchma, the local developer who is partnering with the city to revitalize the downtown, said the city must do more to link that neighborhood with the UB community, which is within walking distance.
“I understand all of us in life may have something that’s a strong belief of our own. I can respect the mayor’s belief but there has to be a way he can put that in perspective to what the big picture might be,” Kuchma said.
Grimaldi said he has witnessed other Finch relationships sour, then improve, and believes there is still a chance the mayor can embrace UB.
“I’d like to see the business community weigh in more and try to figure something out,” Grimaldi said.
McGee and Timpanelli said they have tried.
“Everybody from the mayor’s staff to me to his wife have tried to talk to him about making that relationship better, and failed,” Timpanelli said.
McGee said it did not help when Foster challenged Finch in the 2011 mayoral primary.
“If the university wanted to embrace him, would you run one of your senior people against him?” McGee said.
Foster is optimistic about Finch’s recent decision to hire David Kooris as head of planning and economic development and what that means for redeveloping the South End and collaborating with UB.
“He’s smart, talented, highly educated, not a political animal. He’s a, ‘What’s the highest, best use and how do we get it done’ guy,” she said.
Stratton still believes the fight to stop the Unification Church’s bailout of UB was worthwhile.
“I can’t quantify it, but the ability of the church to go to these small, third world countries and say ‘join and you can put up with our nonsense and go to America some day and beautiful Bridgeport on the water’ was a carrot to cause a lot of human misery,” he said.
But his current perspective on UB has mellowed. Stratton now likens it to a casino–it has benefits for the local economy but a dark side.
“Looking from a pragmatic point of view, it’s part of a texture of Bridgeport which is not in any way ideal, but we’re trying to cobble together a functional city, so you have to put up with some less-than-ideal things,” Stratton said.
But Stratton is willing to defend Finch for sticking to his principles over the past 20 years.
“He’s not going to allow politics or pragmatic thinking to dominate his behavior,” Stratton said. “If Bill wasn’t doing this, what would they try to get away with down there? Now we have sort of our ‘top cop’ as mayor of Bridgeport and it keeps us all safe. It gives a check and balance.”