NEW LONDON — When David Kooris became chair of the Connecticut Port Authority in July, communication “absolutely changed” from “zero” and “we’ll let you know” to negotiations that have dramatically opened up between the Ørsted-Eversource partnership and the City of New London, according to Felix Reyes, director of planning and development for the city.
“Whatever we get is whatever we get and the day will come when we finalize that, but compared to when [former board chair] Scott [Bates] and [former port authority executive director] Evan [Matthews] were there, there was more of an attitude of ‘we’re working on things, we’ll let you know’ versus David is more ‘here’s what we’re working on, let’s meet’ — big difference,” Reyes said on Thursday. “And I give kudos to Lamont because Lamont had to come in with that already established and he gave us David Kooris as that liaison and that window into what’s going on.”
Reyes, in a conversation with CT Examiner after the Planning and Zoning meeting at City Hall Thursday night, said earlier the city had been in dialogue with Deepwater Wind, which Ørsted purchased for $510 million in October 2018, and after that the port authority usurped the negotiations.
“We’ve always had good communication with Deepwater Wind … and then once the negotiations were happening with the CPA … we were just kind of left out and that’s where a lot of the [displeasure] of the community [happened],” he said.
Communication also shifted because New London Mayor Mike Passero was “relentless” in making sure the city wasn’t left out of the negotiations with Ørsted-Eversource.
The city had already been sidelined during the port authority’s choice of Gateway Terminal for the new operator of State Pier, Reyes said.
“It was, ‘we’re working on something, everything is confidential. It’s an RFP, you can’t talk about it, but we knew that was just a firewall to keep us out and we were told ‘you’re going to get something, you’re going to get something” and we knew that once that was done, it was baked, so the deal that we did get was already from a deal that was done and financially it wasn’t good for the city — we knew that,” Reyes said.
According to Reyes, the Ørsted-Eversource deal offers a chance for the city to negotiate a portion of expected revenues, and it also creates an opportunity for the port authority and its corporate partners to show their responsibility to the community.
“But this is the deal, this is where we feel we have the best leverage to be able to make a case to the state, to Eversource and the CPA that it’s just immoral to generate billions of dollars out of this facility … and then the revenue that CPA gets for the rent is essentially going to be for programs to fix other ports,” Reyes said. “You’re taking money out of the poorest community and (it’s) going to some other more affluent communities.”
Reyes said he and Passero agreed it’s more than the corporate players just paying taxes, “it’s actually being a community partner” and using the deal as an opportunity to be a catalyst to help turn the city around.
“We’re so desperate and eager to get more properties on the grand list and more tax revenue so that our mill rate can go down so we’re not burdening our 6,000 taxpayers,” Reyes said. “Those are the fundamental moral issues aside from what we feel we deserve — but there’s just that moral issue — it’s a tough pill for us to swallow.”
Reyes said he was in favor of using the port authority’s Small Harbor Improvement Projects Program (SHIPP) for improving New London’s fishing docks, but the bigger issue was offsetting expected operational costs of fire, ambulance and police that the city will provide to the development.
“$125,000 doesn’t cover it,” he said of a deal negotiated by CPA to provide the city with $75,000 annually with an additional $50,000.
Looking past what Reyes says is the inadequacy of that financial deal, the broader concept is looking at State Pier as part of the city’s enterprise zone, which must be translated into a community hosting agreement with taxes comparable to commercial rates that make sense to the community.
Reyes praised Kooris for having the right experience to help New London. Before stepping into the negotiations as acting chair of the port authority, Kooris was Director of Planning and Development for the City of Bridgeport, a city with similar issues to New London, Reyes said.
“Before he was on CPA, he was the guy who helped pave the way for us between DECD and DEEP. He was able to help get conflicting missions between departments on economic development [aligned]. We’re a coastal community — DECD and DEEP have to be on the same page for New London to develop. He was the one who broke that gridlock, that’s why I have a lot of respect for what he does,” Reyes said. “And he gets it. He was in my position in Bridgeport … he has the experience of what works and what doesn’t work in this type of socio-economic city.”