MIDDLETOWN — Resident Steve Gomes is giving up on a plan to open a bottle redemption facility in Middletown after what he describes as 18 months of delays, refusals and broken promises from the city as he tried to negotiate a lease for his facility.
City officials contend that the facility represented a series of miscommunications, slow responses on Gomes’ part and Gomes’ ultimate refusal to come to an agreement.
The story came out at a September meeting of the Economic Development Committee, several members of whom knew nothing about Gomes’ desire to rent a space in the R.M. Keating building, a business incubator in the city’s North End. The Economic Development Committee is responsible for overseeing the building and approving any businesses that want to lease space there.
“I heard some very shocking things tonight, some really shocking things,” Common Council and Economic Development Committee member Ed McKeon said at the meeting. “I heard accusations of favors to friends by a city employee. It’s not the first time I’ve heard … verbal promises made to people and then those promises withdrawn, getting people backed into corners.”
Gomes, who is head of the town’s Retirement Board, said he lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in grant money that he ultimately had to return to the state and the city and potential revenue from the business, not to mention about $15,000 in personal investment in the project.
“It’s been a horrific experience working with the city on a project that I thought was going to help the city,” Gomes told the Economic Development Committee.
Mayor Ben Florsheim said at the meeting that he had been an advocate both for bottle redemption centers and for Gomes’ project in particular, and he did not understand why events had played out as they had.
“I too regret that we are here tonight,” Florsheim said. “I have looked for negligence and dropped balls and have not been able to find them. I have looked for conspiracy and have not been able to find one. I have found a good faith effort … to try to make this project work and to find a place that is suitable.”
A Bottle Redemption Center for Middletown
In 2021, the Connecticut state legislature passed the “bottle bill” which raised the bottle deposit for bottles and cans from 5 cents to 10 cents beginning in 2024. At the time, proponents of the bill said they hoped the change would incentivize the creation of more bottle redemption centers. The state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection began a grant program meant to encourage the opening of bottle redemption centers in “Environmental Justice Zones” — areas where a high number of residents are living in poverty.
DEEP estimated the bottle bill would increase the demand for recycling by 30 percent.
In March 2022, Gomes spoke with then-Director of Economic Development Joseph Samolis about the possibility of opening the redemption center in the R.W. Keating building, a business incubator in the city that houses a variety of shops and restaurants, including breweries, a Crossfit, and a lighting store. It also houses more industrial businesses, including a painting company and a landscaping service.
Samolis offered Gomes a “tentative lease” for a 1,200-square-foot space in front of the Fidelux Lighting store. The space had access to loading docks, which Gomes said would be ideal so that he could get the cans and bottles out quickly.
Getting the business started up quickly, Gomes emphasized, was key, since a bottle business runs on thin margins.
In April 2022, Gomes received confirmation from the Zoning Enforcement Officer that a bottle redemption center could be placed in the Keating building, and in June he applied for a grant from the city’s coronavirus relief funds. He said he planned to employ four local residents of the city’s North End.
“When we do implement it, the city will see a reduction in disposal fees, landfills will be cleaner, litter will be picked up and, again, the environmental justice zone will benefit,” Gomes said during a meeting of the ARPA committee on June 8, 2022.
That September, Gomes was awarded a grant for $80,000 from the city’s federal coronavirus relief funds. He also received a license from the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection to open a bottle facility at 180 Johnson St. and a state grant for about $143,000.
But at a Sept. 6, 2022, Common Council meeting, member Vinnie Loffredo asked that the location that Gomes listed for the redemption center — the address of the Keating building — be removed from the ARPA grant, and replaced with the phrase “at a location to be determined.”
Loffredo, who is also the chair of the Economic Development Committee, told CT Examiner that the change was made because the lease was only tentative — it had yet to go before the committee, which is responsible for approving leases for the Keating building, or get final approval from the Common Council.
Nocera told CT Examiner that approving an ARPA grant for a business that did not have a set location was unusual, but that he assumed the center would be in the Keating building. He said he saw the building as an ideal location for the bottle redemption center.
Nocera said he felt badly about how the process had been drawn out, and that the process had become so “complex and somewhat disorganized.”
“It’s been taking way too long,” said Nocera. “Honestly … it’s not how we operate for other grantees. We’ve bent over backwards for them — to get [them] what they need, and then get the funding to them, and then to get it started.”
A ‘Vision’ for the Keating Building
At the meeting a few weeks ago, Bobbye Knoll Peterson, the mayor’s chief of staff who stepped in as acting director of Economic Development after Samolis retired, told members of the Economic Development Committee that she and former Fire Chief Rob Kronenberger had discussed a particular “vision” for the Keating building. In mid-2021, the city entered into a vendor agreement with Kronenberger to serve as superintendent of the Keating building.
Businesses that were likely to attract customers — breweries, restaurants and gyms — should face outward, toward the area where patrons would drive in and park their cars. More “industrial” businesses should be located around the backside of the building, in an area not immediately visible to customers.
“That seemed like a logical fit for a redemption center,” Peterson said.
But the space that Samolis originally proposed for Gomes — right next to Forest City Brewery — faced outward, toward the area that customers would view as they pulled up to the building.
Peterson said when she talked to Samolis, who retired in mid-2021, he said the lease was meant to be a placeholder so that Gomes could apply to the state and to the town ARPA committee for grants.
But Samolis told CT Examiner he had intended that Gomes be able to place his business in the space that was originally offered — in front of Fidelux.
“Steve was in his initial phases of getting funding and seeing if he could get the license for the redemption center. But ultimately, the place that he and I were discussing was the location that I was intending to put him in,” Samolis said.
Gomes said after he received the ARPA grant from the city, he contacted Kronenberger about the space in the Keating Building. But by that time, Kronenberger had entered into an agreement to give the space to Fidelux LLC, which was looking to expand.
“When we bring a tenant into Keating, they may look at several spaces, but ultimately it is the job of the staff to decide what is an appropriate space — what fits with the mission of the building, what fits with the flow,” Peterson said. “We have done a lot of work to really make sure that the building is working in harmony, and that it is something that can eventually be a showpiece of the city that we can eventually sell.”
Meanwhile, in October 2022, another distribution center requested a special exemption in the zoning code to open on East Main Street. The Planning and Zoning Commission approved the exemption, over Gomes’ protests that the competition would put his business in jeopardy.
“My challenge is the startup of this. The startup is tremendous,” Gomes told the Planning and Zoning Commission at the meeting in October. “We’re competing for the same volume and I’m not going to be able to pull it off.”
In November 2022, Gomes met with Kronenberger to discuss a potential space in the back of the building that Kronenberger had proposed as an option. According to Gomes, the space was in need of serious renovations before it was ready to be viewed by the public.
“The space [Kronenberger] is trying to give me — there’s water coming through, the floor is uneven, there’s no doors, there’s no bathrooms, there’s no running water and the garage door had just gotten fixed. The windows are atrocious, if you look outside there’s all broken down stuff from all the vendors and everything — that’s where he’s trying to put me,” Gomes said at the meeting last month.
Peterson explained that the city rented out two types of spaces in the building — more “finished” spaces that went for about $6 or $6.50 per square foot, and “raw” spaces, like the one Steve was describing, that can be rented for $2 per square foot. If the tenants are willing to invest their own money in fixing up a space themselves, they are also given credit on their rent.
Gomes asserted that neither Peterson nor Kronenberger ever told him about their broader vision for the building — he was simply prevented from renting any spaces in the front-facing portion, and not given any explanation beyond that the spaces had already been rented to other clients.
Peterson said there was no written vision statement for the building, nor was there a policy in place detailing how applications were approved.
“I think that it’s been handled in much the same way that it was originally founded to be, which is that it’s space that we’re building out gradually,” Florshiem told CT Examiner. “Up until this point, I think that we have made the decisions about space based on the needs of the tenants who reach out and what the spaces themselves can offer.”
At their November meeting, Gomes and Kronenberger created a list of items that needed to be fixed before Gomes could move in — the city would need to install a garage door and customer access doors, the roof would need to be replaced and the floor needed to be leveled. An electrical hookup would need to be installed. After that, Gomes would need to get private contractors to do things like run the wiring.
At that time, Gomes said, he was hoping to open the facility in January 2023. An email chain provided to CT Examiner showed that on Nov. 15, 2022, Gomes sent the list to Kronenberger and asked about initial lease payments. The next time they communicated was in March 2023.
Kronenberger told CT Examiner he had told Gomes verbally in November that Gomes would need to go to the city to get a lease for the space. Kronenberger told both CT Examiner and the committee that he was not responsible for developing leases — that had to be done at City Hall.
“I would suggest you start to develop your lease with downtown. I really don’t have any more funds for the year for that work. Most everything else would come after [July 1],” Kronenberger wrote to Gomes in an email in March. He noted to the committee that July 1, the start of the new fiscal year, would be when he could get more funding for the building.
Gomes told the commission he felt that Kronenberger never intended to actually lease him a space in the building. Kronenberger and Peterson, on the other hand, alleged that Gomes would disappear “for months at a time” and that they wouldn’t hear from him.
“Mr. Gomes alluded many, many times tonight that I give away space. That couldn’t be [further] from the truth,” Kronenberger said at the meeting last month. “I walk through potential tenants, and if it is something they are interested in, I point them to the [Economic and Community Development] office and that is where the lease is developed. I do not develop leases and once the tenant is turned over to [the Economic and Community Development office] I don’t get them back until they are a tenant.”
The Economic Development Committee had no knowledge of Gomes’ tentative lease, despite his having been a potential tenant for over a year. Peterson said that they do not inform the committee about every business that expresses interest in the building — too many of those potential businesses ultimately fall by the wayside.
“We have dozens of people interested in space, dozens of people who look at the space three and four times and ultimately don’t ever rent,” Peterson told CT Examiner.
But committee members disagreed.
“They entered into the tentative agreement, which they can do, but we should be informed of it,” Common Councilwoman and Economic Development Committee member Jeanette Blackwell told CT Examiner. “We should have been informed.”
Councilman and Economic Development Committee member Ed McKeon said it seemed to be a case of poor communication among city departments.
“What we have here is we have one department in the city assigning money to him … the Common Council and ARPA money to him — and another part of the city not helping him achieve the goal of spending that money so the city benefits,” said McKeon.
‘Disingenuous’ and ‘Bad Faith’
On Sept. 22, the day after the Economic Development Committee meeting, Gomes met with Florsheim and Director of Economic and Community Development Christine Marques. In the meeting, Gomes said, he told Marques and Florsheim that he wanted another space, one next to the Crossfit, which was fully constructed and ready to house a business, which he said would allow him to open the center by mid-November.
By the end of the meeting, Gomes said he left believing that the city was going to lease him the space. But Florsheim said this wasn’t how the conversation happened.
In an email that Friday, Florshiem told Gomes that he’d spoken with Kronenberger, and that the space Gomes had looked at earlier — the one Gomes described as having an uneven floor, no doors and “atrocious” windows — could be completed within three months, so that Gomes could open by January. He also said Gomes could have the space he’d originally been offered by Samolis, for $6.50 per square foot, as long as he was willing to allow other businesses to use the loading docks.
In the ensuing emails, Gomes accused Florsheim’s email of being “flawed” and “disingenuous,” and claimed Florsheim was “continuing the run around” that city officials had given him for more than a year.
For his part, Florsheim responded that he had been supportive of Gomes’ project from the start, and said he saw Gomes’ response as “a demonstration of bad faith.”
Marques confirmed Florshiem’s version of events.
Gomes ultimately rejected both of the mayor’s offers of space. Gomes told CT Examiner that even if Kronenberger was able to get the space ready by Jan. 1, Gomes would still have to do all the interior work, which would set him back further.
“I have some money, but I’m not a bank,” Gomes said. “If I had been able to get it started earlier in the year, I could have built up some cash flow. … I would have been building up the ability to run the business. Now I’m going to go zero to 100 in one month? Not going to happen.”
He said he would also have to do work on the space that Samolis originally offered him, and that it wouldn’t work if he had to allow other businesses access to the loading docks.
Peterson told CT Examiner she didn’t know what else the city could have offered Gomes, and that it felt as though he kept “moving the goalposts.”
“It honestly, at this point, genuinely seems like he is not interested in resolution, and I don’t know at this point what we could offer that would serve the needs of the building and the existing tenants and also make him happy,” Peterson said.
Gomes recently relinquished his grant from the city. He maintained that his goal had always been to benefit Middletown, where he’d lived for 38 years, and that he didn’t understand why the city had “given him the runaround” for a year.
“This shouldn’t happen for someone who is trying to do a good deed for the city,” Gomes told the Economic Development Committee.