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Developer Pulls Back, Town Moves Ahead on Swing Bridge Landing Vote

EAST HADDAM – The developer of the proposed Swing Bridge Landing has hit the pause button on his $50 million downtown commercial redevelopment, but the town is moving forward with creating a redevelopment agency to oversee any potential transformation of the historic riverfront village.

“He’s on hold depending what the town does,” First Selectman Irene Haines said at a Monday night meeting of the East Haddam Village Revitalization Committee of the developer, local architect Jeff Riley and his Centerbridge group of investors. 

“I think at this point they’re not ready to pull the plug yet,” she said later of Riley’s group. “I think they are on hold and I don’t think they’re interested in spending any more of their money on it at this time.”

In response to questions by CT Examiner over the past week, Riley would not commit to continuing or abandoning the ambitious project, which has hit a series of delays since he proposed it in the spring of 2020. 

But Riley said that he and his wife and fellow architect, Mary Wilson, support forming a redevelopment agency that would study the plan and make a recommendation on it to the public and various town boards that would need to approve it. 

“A Redevelopment Agency would be good for the Town, regardless of whether Mary and I continue with the project or not,” Riley said in a statement. “We’re unable to add anything more at this time.”

Riley has proposed building 94,000 square feet of shops, restaurants and apartments on the compact, 2.75-acre site overlooking the Connecticut River and directly across Main Street from the Goodspeed Opera House. The area is now mostly occupied by vacant former municipal buildings including the former Town Hall and public works garage. 

A tentatively planned Dec. 14 referendum was to have focused on whether the town should negotiate to sell the property to Riley for $450,000, given the additional nearly $1 million in demolition and remediation that the site would require. 

The referendum was postponed indefinitely earlier this month after a joint meeting of the boards of Selectmen and Finance, where many officials and residents voiced concerns about the scope and traffic impact of the project and whether the town had enough solid information about a number of issues to put it to a vote. 

Haines has backed the transformation of the village, whether by Riley or another developer, and spoke enthusiastically about Riley’s proposal throughout the meeting.

She said her immediate focus was on creating the redevelopment agency, determining how it would be formed, and what powers it would have.

Haines expressed the hope that having the agency evaluate Riley’s proposal before it goes to referendum would make the issue less complicated and controversial for residents. She said that she was aiming to bring the sale of the property to a townwide vote in January or February.

“The question should be whether to sell the property or not – period,” Haines said. 

Recent public opposition to the plan has focused not only on its size, but whether the town should sell the land or maintain ownership and lease it to Riley, and what the implications of either route would be. 

“You can’t go forward with such a big project without having those questions answered,” Haines said at the Monday meeting of the committee formed more than a decade ago to attract development to downtown. “We tried to push it all the way but I think we have to take it several small steps at a time.” 

Riley has said that he may not pursue the project if it passes at referendum but does not receive “overwhelming support” in the vote. 

Discussion at Monday’s meeting also focused on the tax implications of the project, which Riley has estimated will add $25 million to the grand list in a town with very little commercial development and associated tax revenue. 

Committee member Jim Curtin said that any sale agreement should include a provision essentially allowing the town to buy back the property if Riley decided to sell it, potentially to a non-profit organization exempt from local property taxes. 

“Whatever you do, it better be paying taxes,” Curtin said. “The entire village can’t be non-profit. That’s just ridiculous – the rest of the town will be supporting the entire village.” 

Haines, who suggested that some sort of tax break for the developer would be appropriate, said the tax revenue the project would generate is perhaps being overlooked by some of those who oppose it. 

“Right now we’re getting nothing,” from the property, she said. “There’s a lot of tax money that we can gain that will help pay the bills in this town. People don’t seem to understand that.”

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