EAST HADDAM – Newly-elected First Selectman Irene Haines says she strongly supports a highly-debated commercial transformation of the riverfront downtown village – a signal that the developer of the proposed Swing Bridge Landing project insists is crucial to moving it forward.
Haines, a Republican who on Tuesday defeated Democrat Scott Jezek by a total of 1,734 votes to Jezek’s 1,604, said one of the first calls she made after taking office was to Swing Bridge developer and Centerbrook architect Jeff Riley.
“He’s glad that somebody wants to move it along and make it happen,” Haines said, adding that she shares some residents’ concerns that the scale of Riley’s plan may be too ambitious for the compact site. “We shouldn’t stop the process because of those concerns. The conversation needs to continue.‘’
The main purpose of the call, she said, was to begin refining the details of an upcoming referendum ballot question on whether the town should sell the 2.7-acre site for $450,000 to Riley and his group of investors, known as the Centerbridge Group.
Centerbridge would need to spend another estimated $800,000 on remediation and demolition at the site bordering the Connecticut River, which contains several vacated former municipal buildings including town hall and a public works garage.
Riley said before the election that its outcome could determine if he continues the project, which he claims was “stymied by a lack of leadership” from the previous administration of Democrat First Selectman Rob Smith, and had been subject to a series of frustrating delays since he made his formal proposal in the spring of 2020.
Friday, he released the following statement to CT Examiner from him and his wife and fellow architect, Mary Wilson:
“Mary and I believe Irene Haines will be refreshingly proactive in supporting our efforts to bring not only a wonderful but also a financially feasible project to life in East Haddam’s Village Center.
“Nonetheless, we need several other indicators of reassurance, not only for us but for our equity investors who stand waiting in the wings. We are waiting to see the exact wording of the referendum.
“And, of course, we are waiting to see the outcome of the referendum. But the vote must not simply pass, it must pass with overwhelming support.”
Riley envisions building approximately 94,000 square-feet of shops, restaurants and apartments, many housed in a replica of the mansion of William H. Goodspeed, the banker and entrepreneur who built the namesake Goodspeed Opera House directly across the road in 1876.
Plans also call for a town green fronting the replica mansion and other buildings that will host holiday festivals, farmers’ markets and activities for kids.
Riley, who lives in town, estimates the project will add more than $25 million in 2025 dollars to the grand list.
The proposal has prompted an extraordinary amount of debate in town, with one side saying the development is long overdue to increase revenue from property taxes and visitors, and the other saying that the project is too ambitious and will ruin the town’s rural character and create a traffic nightmare in the village.
Last month, a referendum was tentatively scheduled for Dec. 21, to be preceded by a town meeting on the proposal.
Haines said that holding the referendum in the thick of the holiday season was a source of frustration for Riley, and she agrees that the town meeting and the vote should be held earlier.
“Whether you are a ‘yes’ or a ‘no,’ the 21st was not good for anybody,” said Haines, who also is a state representative and the town’s part-time director of economic development. “We need to let it go to a vote – we shouldn’t drag our feet any longer. I think it’s an important project for the town and I think with more knowledge and a clear-cut referendum question people will have a better understanding of exactly what they’re voting for.”
Another delay was the town’s decision in September to appoint a new redevelopment agency to oversee the project, which had long been guided by the East Haddam Village Revitalization Committee – a move that some viewed as unnecessary and redundant.
Members of the agency have yet to be installed.
One focus of the public debate over the project is whether the town should sell the site to the developers as planned, or maintain ownership and lease it to them.
Haines would not comment on that question, but said that she believes the project needs to happen, both for the property tax revenue and the money-spending visitors it will draw.
“I question whether or not it can all fit in the space, but there’s no other place for it,” she said.
“It’s an amazing spot, and if we’re going to do anything we need to do it down there. We’re just trying to figure out what’s best for the project and the town.”
Riley and Wilson said in their statement that a full backing of the project by residents and town government is needed in order to justify the expense in building it.
“We will be asking investors to put a lot of capital at risk, and they, in turn, will need to see strong support from both the public and the politicians, support we believed we had two years ago,” they said. “Having Irene at the helm is a great start.”