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Peeling the Blue Onion

A new developer shows interest in reviving the Colt project. Let's hope all the baggage doesn't scare them off.

Daniel D'Ambrosio

December 25, 2008

There's a new sheriff in Coltsville. But whether or not that means the long-suffering former firearms factory in Hartford's South Meadows will finally become an engine of growth and prosperity for the city remains uncertain.

Urban Smart Growth, a California-based developer with an extensive East Coast operation based in Pawtucket, R.I., has been studying the troubled property for the past six months, weighing whether to get involved in its development into retail and residential space, according to USG's David Saadeh.

Lance Robbins, owner of the privately held USG, spoke briefly at a presentation last Thursday about what shape a proposed National Historic Park at Colt might take the ultimate goal of backers including U.S. Rep. John Larson, Mayor Eddie Perez, and Gov. M. Jodi Rell. The property, where Sam Colt's workers produced the famed Colt .45, among other weapons, received National Historic Landmark status this year but the National Park Service has yet to commit to creating a national park on the site.

Robbins' company has revitalized forgotten and neglected buildings in the urban cores of Los Angeles, Calif., Columbus, Ohio; Providence, R.I. and other cities. But he calls Colt the "toughest project I've ever seen." For now, USG's involvement is "tentative."

"We have a lot to do with financial institutions, but we're confident we'll overcome the obstacles," said Robbins.

Saadeh has been meeting with the current manager of the property, Larry Dooley of Yonkers-based Homes for America Holdings, to try to determine exactly what USG would be getting into if it invested in Colt. Homes for America Holdings, owned by Bob MacFarlane, has been stalled for more than a year in its efforts to develop the property.

Finding out what is going on with the property has been like peeling back layers of an onion, Saadeh said.

"We've come across many layers, none of them insurmountable," he said. "We're still in that process but we see a light at the end of it all."

Over the past year, the Advocate has also tried to peel back some of the layers of the Colt onion, and found an increasingly twisted web of questionable dealings surrounding the financing of the project.

A story in May 2008 revealed the Securities and Exchange Commission had charged a Las Vegas financier who held a 50 percent ownership stake in Colt with fraud.

The SEC alleged that Joseph Milanowski improperly loaned $8.3 million to Colt Gateway as MacFarlane's renovation project is known through an investment fund he controlled while he simultaneously had an interest in the project itself. The lawsuit did not accuse MacFarlane of any wrongdoing.

Some of the other questionable highlights include another $40 million loaned to the project by a now-bankrupt Las Vegas lender that couldn't be traced; chronically past-due city property taxes; and a foreclosure lawsuit brought by investors including the owners of Station Casinos in Las Vegas.

It's no wonder Robbins called Colt the toughest project he had ever seen. Reached by telephone last week, MacFarlane acknowledged that Urban Smart Growth was talking to his people about Colt, adding that the end result might be some sort of joint venture with Homes for America Holdings.

But Dan Comins, who runs USG's East Coast operation, only smiled when questioned about the possibility of a joint venture.

"I don't think we can currently speak to that because I don't know how it's going to work out," said Comins.

Saadeh acknowledged there had been "massive difficulties" with the Colt project, even predating HFAH's involvement. Both he and Comins declined to say exactly how Robbins and USG became interested in the project.

"We were brought to the project by entities privy to these difficulties," said Saadeh. "It's unfortunate all around. Hopefully we can turn it around."

Robbins is uniquely suited to turning around Colt, according to Comins, having dealt with similarly entangled projects in Los Angeles and elsewhere.

"He's been doing projects like this for 30 years," he said.

Hope Artiste Village, a USG project in Pawtucket, R.I., is strikingly similar to Colt, involving the renovation of the Hope Webbing textile mill complex, built between 1890 and 1930, that was the largest mill of its type in the world, covering some 650,000 square feet with six interconnected buildings, according to the USG Web site.

Urban Smart Growth bought the property threatened demolition in 2005 for $2.5 million, and has since created "small scale artisan manufacturing spaces" for a coffee roaster, bakery, sculptor and others, along with office space, retail, music venues, and even "the only known duck pin industrial bowling alley."

"In the 18 months since opening, the complex has reached economic stability at 40 percent occupancy and will embark on creating 135 arts lofts apartments in 2008, for completion the following year," states the USG Web site.

In his remarks last week, Robbins said Colt, given its storied past, presented a much more compelling opportunity than even Hope Webbing, "if we can get to first base."

"It's the most exciting opportunity we've ever had," said Robbins.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
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