Colt Gateway is in trouble and needs the state's help. Work has stalled on the historic Colt armory complex, its developers caught in a financial Catch-22. The blue-domed east armory, a landmark familiar to all who travel along I-91 through Hartford, is increasingly vulnerable to time and weather.
To have this promising $180 million restoration fall through at this late stage would be beyond disappointing. For Connecticut to let an internationally important landmark lapse into ruin would be a travesty.
Of all the development projects that have received state support in the interest of downtown revitalization and economic development, this one has perhaps the most promise.
The Colt complex is the birthplace of industrial innovation, where some of America's most famous inventors cut their teeth. It is presently under consideration to become a national historic landmark, preliminary to the hoped-for designation as a national park. The park would bring visitors and proper recognition to the contributions Connecticut has made to world technology. It would also spread the engaging story of Sam Colt and his widow, Elizabeth, who ran the business for decades after his death.
So far, the developers have invested about $15 million of their own in the project. They have cleaned up pollution on the 17-acre site, renovated and leased two buildings that now house a school, offices and a software company, installed a cooling and heating plant, renovated and leased 36 impressively appointed loft-style apartments with another 200 proposed, and brought 300 jobs to the neighborhood.
Without their efforts to rescue this significant site from its dilapidated state and renovate it to federal historic standards, chances are slim to none that it would become a national park.
Yet the mixed commercial and residential development is a complicated undertaking that has run into financial roadblocks and, according to the principals, frustrating bureaucracy.
Rebekah MacFarlane of Colt Gateway says the bankruptcy of one $16 million investor has put a strain on cash flow. State grants were not as large as expected and some pledged financing won't materialize until the project is nearly complete. The bank holding a mortgage on some of the buildings stopped funding the work six months ago. Ms. MacFarlane said she has been turned down by lender after lender in a bid to refinance. Most, she says, either refuse to invest in Hartford, want more investment by the state or want work to resume before they commit. The company can't proceed without an infusion of cash.
Meanwhile, state development officials won't ante up more than the grants and loans they've committed so far - about $6 million in all - until Colt Gateway can show it has the finances to complete the project.
Ms. MacFarlane is clearly frustrated at the slow pace of state assistance, particularly the transfer of state-owned property near the complex that the software company needs for parking if it is to expand as planned. She is asking state agencies and the governor's office to step up to bridge the gap and get the project moving.
Here's a proposal that Colt Gateway should specifically request and that the state should honor: Ante up for the full cost of facade improvements, including windows and a new roof, on the domed east armory. Ms. MacFarlane estimates it will cost about $9 million to do the job right. So far, the state has made $1 million available, but that isn't nearly enough.
That relief would free up cash and perhaps reassure lenders. The state's investment in preserving the most visible landmark on the site would protect its character, whether or not this particular developer succeeds. This is not an ordinary building, but much like the Old State House, an irreplaceable icon.
Also, the state should expedite the transfer of the parking spaces before the tenant gets impatient and decides to take its 300 jobs elsewhere.
Colt Gateway has not only enhanced the neighborhood, but has shown passion for Hartford's history and its role in preserving the Colt legacy. The developers are engaged in the community. They could have chosen a less expensive, more profitable route than historic preservation, yet have been meticulous in meeting high standards.
The state cannot afford to let this project languish or let this opportunity to have a national park elude its grasp.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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