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Confusion Reigns at Colt

Colt Gateway developers want $14 million from the state or the Colt project will collapse. They say they are meeting with the state. The state says no meetings have taken place.

By DANIEL D'AMBROSIO, Hartford Advocate Staff Writer

October 04, 2007

The developer of Colt Gateway has put a $14 million price tag on saving the project from oblivion, adding that time is short and that the money needs to come from the state in the form of a grant.

"The $14 million gets us through the development where we need to be," said David McGuill, regional director of operations for Homes for America Holdings, based in Yonkers, N.Y. "That would put us in a position to finish the project successfully."

Work on Colt Gateway, which is at the center of a larger effort to bring national park status to the former factory and home of 19th-century gun makers Sam and Elizabeth Colt in the South Meadows, has been stalled for months as Homes for America has struggled with cash flow. The company is attempting to transform the three remaining Colt armories near Interstate 91 into a residential and commercial complex that would include a visitor's center and small museum if the national park becomes a reality.

Following a story in the Advocate last month reporting Colt Gateway was in trouble, McGuill said Homes for America's Rebekah MacFarlane began meeting directly with the governor's office and the Department of Economic and Community Development to work out "additional financial assistance" from the state.

MacFarlane said former Congressman Rob Simmons was facilitating the negotiations with the governor's office.

"Things seem to be going well," said McGuill. "We're going to work closely with the state to come up with a prompt resolution which will help move the project forward."

But both the governor's office and the DECD denied this week that they were meeting with MacFarlane concerning the fate of Colt Gateway.

"There have been no meetings since the [Advocate] article ran," said DECD spokesman Jim Watson. "I'm not aware of any $14 million application into this agency."

Adam Liegeot, a spokesman for Gov. M. Jodi Rell, said the governor's office "has not met with the company."

Yet McGuill gave specific details of the meetings, saying that on Tuesday, Sept. 25, MacFarlane met with Ronald F. Angelo, deputy commissioner of the DECD, and that Angelo "said he would put $10 million to $12 million into the project, free money, but he needed to see a plan."

"That plan has been submitted over a year ago," said McGuill, adding that he didn't know why Angelo was asking for the plan again.

Separate from the Sept. 25 meeting, McGuill said the office of U.S. Rep. John Larson, D-1st District a strong supporter of Colt Gateway had set up a meeting for MacFarlane with representatives of the DECD, the Connecticut Development Authority, and Lisa Moody, chief of staff for Governor Rell to "specifically discuss the Colt project."

"That meeting was supposed to happen this past Thursday but was canceled on Wednesday evening," said McGuill.

McGuill did not know if the meeting has been rescheduled, or why it was canceled. Larson's office could not confirm this.

The $14 million Homes for America says it needs to complete the Colt Project would have to come in the form of a grant, not a low-interest loan or tax credit, because the company has already taken on as much debt as it can, according to McGuill.

In last month's story in the Advocate, MacFarlane estimated her company had poured that same amount $14 million into the project since 2003. So the grant would equal the amount of its own money that the firm has put into the project.

The state has already committed about $6.5 million in grants and low-interest loans to Colt Gateway, and MacFarlane acknowledged that all told, Homes for America has received nearly $45 million in tax credits and other assistance from the city, state and federal governments for the project.

But most of those millions are unavailable until the project is complete or nearly complete, and therein lies the financial rub. Only the South Armory has received any significant renovation, with 34 of a planned 238 apartments built and rented. The rest of the building remains mostly an empty shell.

As for the East Armory, the most visible of the buildings fronting Interstate 91 with Colt's distinctive blue onion dome, and the North Armory, next to nothing has been done, leaving the entire complex with a disheveled appearance that has long worried supporters such as Bill Hosley.

Hosley is a former curator at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art who was responsible for a popular Colt show a decade ago. He also serves on an ad hoc committee formed by Larson to push for the National Historic Landmark designation for the 250-acre Colt complex.

A special advisory committee to the National Park Service tabled a proposal to award the Landmark status last October and is expected to vote again soon, although no date has been set.

Hosley praised MacFarlane for a "pretty gutsy ploy" to go public with Colt Gateway's financial difficulties, but said he remained discouraged about the future of the project and its role in the larger effort to revitalize downtown Hartford.

The new convention center that is already up and running downtown and the science center currently under construction are both part of Adriaen's Landing, launched during the administration of former Gov. John Rowland, who was driven from office by financial scandal.

The next piece in the Adriaen's Landing puzzle is a high-end retail and restaurant district, known as Front Street, that is supposed to break ground this month but has yet to show any signs of life. And just this week, the Hartford Courant, citing unnamed sources, reported that the Wadsworth Atheneum wants to back out of another project connected to Adriaen's Landing the renovation of the former Hartford Times building.

Colt Gateway is only a stone's throw away from everything that is happening or not happening connected to Adriaen's Landing.

"I think [Colt Gateway] is important particularly for its location as it relates to the convention center and the river," said H. Scott Phelps, president of the Greater Hartford convention and Visitors Bureau. "The [Colt] building is prominent as you head into the city from the south. It's a real icon."

All of which leaves Hosley discouraged and perplexed by the state's lack of response.

"The main elements of Adriaen's landing have stalled," said Hosley. "Given these circumstances, how could they not have a position?"

Meanwhile, McGuill maintains that the fundamental importance of the Colt Gateway project to Hartford's future vitality as a destination for tourism and business will serve to "bring people together to make it happen."

"We're not greedy, we're not asking for anything more than what we need," said McGuill.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
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