New London — After waiting part of his life on the sidelines as New London weathered ups and downs and too many near misses, Mike Passero is three-and-a-half years into his first term as New London mayor. He is heavily favored to win a second term.
“I’ve fulfilled the things I ran on, which was to get the city off the front page with these made-up crises, a lot less drama, and I’ve done that,” said Passero. “I wasn’t going to take over and fail because of the previous four years.”
In a lengthy and freewheeling interview with CT Examiner staff on May 13, Passero expressed in turn pride in his first-term accomplishments, his frustration with the absurdities state regulation, and anger that New London has often not gotten its due, most recently from the Connecticut Port Authority. He spoke about what he described as an improved culture for getting things done under Gov. Ned Lamont.
“We have a developer who wants to put hundreds of thousands of dollars into this cool little restaurant based on those containers,” Passero explained enthusiastically. “New London got every approval it needed… and then we got a letter saying ‘over our dead body,’ and the project comes to a screeching halt — because the guy’s not going to start spending money, converting, when he thinks he has the power of Hartford working against him… but that was under Malloy.”
Hartford is still Hartford, in Passero’s explanation. New London still faces similar obstacles from the Connecticut Department of Energy & Environmental Protection (DEEP), for example, but this time the governor is willing to help. “Within in weeks under Lamont we had a meeting up there — basically got the ‘over our dead body lecture’ — but we had someone sitting there, and a few days later we got a phone call saying, ‘you know, we might be able to work this out for you.’ So, that’s a change in culture.”
Passero spent much of the interview detailing the twists and turns of various other projects dotting a map of New London in his third floor office in City Hall. Again and again he explained his efforts as mayor to help New London help itself.
“That’s one of the things we’re sick of — we’re sick of being a charity case and they made us a charity case and that’s one of the things I’ve been hammering on for three years. I hammered Gov. Lamont before he was governor during the whole campaign,” he said.
The Problem with the Pier
On May 2, Lamont announced a 20-year, $93 million harbor development plan that will allow for offshore wind power and turbine assembly at the State Pier in New London.
The plan established an agreement partnering Bay State Wind (a joint venture of Ørsted, a Danish wind-power company and Eversource), the Connecticut Port Authority, and the New-Haven-based terminal operator, Gateway.
While Passero said he’s in favor of developing the State Pier into a world-class, state-of-the-art facility that will service the offshore wind industry, he expressed anger that Gateway will not pay taxes to New London under a deal made with the port authority. The deal deprived New London of taxes that other municipalities, such as New Haven, receive from port operations, according to Passero.
“Because it’s state property, they don’t have to pay property taxes — it’s doesn’t make any sense, but in New Haven they make a deal to operate the port and they have to pay property taxes,” he said. “We got backstabbed by the Connecticut Port Authority and it was just shameful and they didn’t make up the money that we’re being cheated out of.”
New London will take a financial hit from the State Pier development because the city will provide municipal services for the operation without compensation, Passero said.
“The problem is they can’t operate without our fire department, our emergency services, our police department, you name it,” he said.
And Passero still doesn’t have a seat on the Connecticut Port Authority, a quasi-public agency established in 2014 that is responsible for the development of the state’s ports and maritime industry.
Passero said he was promised a seat on the Connecticut Port Authority, but if he gets the seat, he will only be able to vote on issues affecting New London, despite the fact that towns like Old Lyme have a seat and a vote on every issue.
“You always have to eat a little crow,” he commented.
Making Waves Offshore
Concerning offshore wind power, Passero said he was pleased the city will receive about $750,000 per year for two or possibly three years from Ørsted because of a previous deal made with Deepwater Wind, which was purchased by Ørsted for $510 million in October 2018.
“We teamed up with Deepwater Wind because the guy [Jeff Grybowski] that was putting the deals together is out of New Bedford so he identifies with New London. We bonded. He comes here… we just hit it off. And he understood the partner,” explained Passero. “It’s a partnership between New London, it’s me doing business with New London, with Deepwater Wind, which is now Ørsted. The Connecticut Port Authority has nothing to do with this. The state has nothing to do with this.”
“ Ørsted has to honor Deepwater Wind contracts and they have to be producing power by 2022. It’s on a really tight schedule,” he said.
New London’s harbor offers an ideal location for Ørsted’s turbine assembly plant, according to Passero.
“This harbor is perfectly situated for this. it has exactly the geographical characteristics that you need — there’s no breakwaters, it’s not a difficult channel, there’s no overhead restrictions, there’s nothing,” he said. “It’s easy on easy off, to use an interstate highway analogy. The ships can come and go with almost no difficulties. You don’t even need tugs, really, that’s how easy it is.”
Housing and Transportation
Passero also described his work to help develop more affordable and market-rate housing, particularly in response to increased recruiting by Electric Boat for its Groton shipyard, which may add as many as 15,000 workers by 2030.
“Electric boat is driving our housing right now…. Thank God, we have [Pennsylvania-based] A.R. Building because they were privately funded, they are the only company so far that has been smart enough to capitalize on the market,” Passero said.
“We have 1000 units in the pipeline right now, at least half of that is workforce or affordable housing,” said Passero. “People think now we’re going to gentrify New London, I don’t see that as a risk, but it’s something you have to watch. The reason we can’t let that happen is we can’t lose the lower-paying trades. We’re very conscious right now people are having to pay more than 40% of their income for housing … so, we are working very hard with the Department of Housing. The problem with affordable housing is you have to get government financing and that’s breaking up. And now with the debt diet it’s going to be even harder.”
He listed off a series of housing projects in various stages of planning and development: A 72-unit project on Coleman street, requiring tax credits. There was a developer for a mixture of affordable and market-rate housing at Parkville Mills. At least a few projects were stopped short under the previous administration, but again Passero appeared hopeful that would change under Lamont.
“I’d go up there [during the Malloy administration] with a $35 million development for Fort Trumbull and Parcel 1, and DEEP Commissioner Klee, [I’d say to him] you’re not serious, right, it’s a $35 million deal and you’re stopping it? And he’d just shrug his shoulders.”
Passero said that he believes the new administration will ease caps on buildable units at Fort Trumbull — currently standing at 104 — without sacrificing environmental values.
“I would like to have 10-story high-rises and I don’t have one yet. We’re working on it. I think once we get the one, then it will be like the Seaport District of Boston, I just have to get them to understand, if you build it, they will come,” he said. “And maybe we’ll even get commuter trains!” he laughed.
Passero said he was in favor of tolls because it would make funding available for mass transit, which would benefit the regional economy.
“We need tolls so there’s enough money to look at the trains…. If we were connected to New Haven and Westerly or Providence the same way New Haven is connected to New York, this area and New London would explode.”
All about the team
Offering to stay as long as we were willing to talk, Passero finished the interview with purpose and a point. His greatest accomplishment in office so far, he said, was installing professional management into city government, one of his campaign promises.
“I have this great executive team, they all work together, there’s no jealousies, and even after three and a half years they’re not discouraged — they are as charged up as the day they started the job,” he said. “They’re looking forward to another four years if their idiot boss manages to get reelected, and we’re ready to go, so that’s the greatest thing. Focus on what you can do and get it done and that’s what we’ve been doing.”