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MDC Floats Plan Down By The River

Two Other Agencies Could Scuttle Idea

April 21, 2006
ByOSHRAT CARMIEL, Courant Staff Writer

The Metropolitan District Commission, which in recent years has sought to broaden its role as the region's water and sewer agency, is launching a campaign to create a 6.25 million square foot riverfront development in southeast Hartford - now the site of a water treatment plant, a trash burning facility and Brainard Airport.

But first it needs to persuade two other agencies, one supportive if hesitant, the other flatly unreceptive.

The ambitious development plan, laid out in a glossy, 20-page booklet, envisions a campus stretching along the Connecticut River with a mix of residential, commercial and retail use. Aside from the prime location, the site is touted as being energy independent, with much of the tenants' power needs generated by a new, state-of-the art trash-to-energy plant to be built nearby.

"You don't create high level jobs by saying, `Come, we'll give you a tax break for five years.'" said MDC Chairman William A. DiBella, who gave a presentation on the proposal Thursday to The Courant's editorial board. "Everyone can offer tax breaks. But energy goes to the bottom line."

DiBella and Charles Sheehan, MDC chief executive officer, said that the lure to future business, and the region, is the ability to generate electricity on site, and also use the heat produced by the generation to power the heating and cooling systems of the entire development.

"That means people paying for heating and air conditioning are going to get a major discount," DiBella said.

That heat, once used, will return as 250-degree steam. And that steam, DiBella said, can be used to heat vats of remaining garbage and sludge to create ethanol, which could be sold locally instead of imported from the Midwest.

The efficient reuse, DiBella said, also would make the mixed use development eligible for tax credits under a new energy law passed in Connecticut last year.

All this, the theory goes, would make Hartford a serious competitor in the race to lure a research and development campus, a pharmaceutical firm or a corporate headquarters.

The site also would offer access to railways, a major highway, waterways, docks and an existing heliport, and an upgrade to the existing sewage treatment plant, for which MDC already has plans.

Besides the MDC, the idea also has the support of Hartford Mayor Eddie A. Perez.

"It puts us in the room with other major cities about what it is we have to offer," Perez said. "When you're talking that many acres, that many square feet, we're talking about Hartford now playing with the big boys."

But the proposal also needs the support of the Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority, which owns the existing trash-to-energy plant on the site and would build a new one as part of the plan, and the state, which owns Brainard Airport. That is more problematic.

Officials at CRRA said Thursday that they believe in the concept, but that ultimately it may not fit in with the trash agency's mission.

"We're supportive," said Jim Bolduc, the agency's chief financial officer, "but it's important that the MDC understand what our organization's needs are and what we've been through in the last few years.

"It's got to make economic sense to us as well."

With the debt on the current trash-to-energy plant scheduled to be paid off by 2012, Bolduc said, it may be unwise to construct a new, $300 million plant.

The state Department of Transportation, which runs Brainard, was even less enthusiastic.

"Those existing facilities are extremely valuable," said Richard Jaworski, chief of the aviation and ports bureau at the DOT. "It's highly unlikely that we would consider going along with this."

Jaworski said Brainard provides critical relief to Bradley International Airport. With over 100,000 takeoffs and landings annually and about 185 aircraft parked there, the airport is not a disposable asset, he said.

To sell the airport also would mean repaying federal funds that were granted on condition that the airport remain open, he said. Closing the airport also would renege on the many private contractors who rely on the airport.

But the future of Brainard is up to the legislature and the governor, DiBella said, not the DOT. As a first step, the MDC is asking the state legislature for $1 million to study the concept of using the trash-to-energy plant to heat and cool the development. The agency, in conjunction with the city Hartford and CRRA, has pledged to match that $1 million, he said.

"All we're saying is let's not be afraid to look at some options and some alternatives," DiBella said. "Don't just say, `It's an airport; it should stay an airport.'"

Brainard has been the target of development dreams before. The last time the idea was considered seriously was 20 years ago: Hartford officials, with the backing of then-state Sen. DiBella, argued that the airport was a poor use of valuable land that should be developed to generate tax revenue for the city. The General Assembly authorized a study that concluded in 1989 that the property should continue to be used as an airport.

The idea of closing Brainard also has faced opposition in the past from some area business leaders, who argue that shifting the local field's operations to Bradley International Airport would cause congestion and delays and might create hazardous conditions.

The closure also has been opposed by the owners of corporate and private planes that fly in and out of Brainard, and by the Airplane Owners and Pilots Association, an influential national organization of small plane owners.

Ironically, the association recently agreed to hold its 2007 annual conference in Hartford, an event expected to bring at least 8,000 participants and generate $10 million in revenue.

One reason Hartford was chosen, according to the association's website, was the area's friendly attitude toward general aviation, the classification for private planes.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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