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Factory Fixer: New Sheriff Takes On Colt

Hartford Courant

March 29, 2009

Exhale, Hartford believers. Rehabilitation of the historic Colt firearms factory, with its landmark blue onion dome, is about to resume full bore under new and enthusiastic management.

This is good news for the capital city and for Connecticut on many levels, both economic and aesthetic.

Lance J. Robbins of Urban Smart Growth, with investment from Chevron Corp., said the complicated legal change of ownership has taken a year to unravel, but it is now complete. The Californian gives high praise to the city and to the state Department of Economic and Community Development for smoothing the way for his company to take over the stalled project from Homes for America Holdings Inc.

We second that notion, with a nod to Gov. M. Jodi Rell for making the Colt project an economic development priority. The Courant has championed the salvation of the historic industrial complex for more than a decade. The project has been in limbo for many months due to cash-flow issues and the bankruptcy of the former developers' major investor. It's nice to see it back on track.

Mr. Robbins steps in where many have failed before him. Yet it is tempting to break out the champagne. The historic factory and environs that were part of the Sam Colt industrial empire recently became a National Historic Landmark. Coltsville's chances of being named a national park are a lot rosier with the prospect that the factory will be maintained by private owners and developed into a destination spot.

Mr. Robbins inherits the bones of a promising vision. Whatever mistakes Homes for America made, the developer rehabilitated major portions of the factory complex and brought jobs to the neighborhood.

Mr. Robbins has something the previous owners didn't the promise of substantial public money, some of it part of the federal stimulus package to help fulfill the vision. State officials aren't ready to reveal amounts or confirm a commitment, but Mr. Robbins expects about $12 million. We can't think of a more worthy use of stimulus money than a project that creates jobs, nurtures small businesses, revitalizes a neighborhood and preserves a key component of national heritage.

His firm has experience with mixed-use development of historic factories all over the country. His most recent success is Hope Artiste Village, a former weaving mill in Pawtucket, R.I., about two miles from downtown Providence.

If that project is any barometer of Colt's prospects, this will be a good investment for all concerned. Hope Artiste Village has been in operation for about a year, yet already lists more than 60 tenants residences, retail shops and an eclectic mix of wholesale and light industrial operations, from a violin maker to a historic window factory to a cuff link manufacturer to a wholesale bakery.

Its resemblance to the interior of the Colt armories is uncanny. The centerpiece and chief draw is a year-round Saturday farmers market that brings in 1,000 visitors each week. Tenants rave about it.

Mr. Robbins, who describes himself as a "dirty fingernails" kind of guy, plans to oversee the Hartford project up close. He says it is premature to discuss details, such as whether he will complete the residential units that Homes for America started. But he claims "significant prospects" for leasing commercial space. He said he wants to make Colt a "people park" rather than an office park. He refers to it as hallowed historic ground.

One way the state can ensure that this developer succeeds is to protect the historic rehabilitation tax credits that spawn investments such as Chevron's. Without them, few can afford to take on the complicated renovation and reuse of the historic mills that dot the region and define its character.

Mr. Robbins understands that Hartford's history is its identity. "I like to fix things. The more complicated the fix, the more I like it," he once said.

He sounds like just the man to take over the reins at Colt.

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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