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East Hartford Cabela's Hasn't Drawn Other Businesses

MONICA POLANCO

February 23, 2009

EAST HARTFORD - Cabela's, which opened at Rentschler Field in 2007, has been good for Bruce Kabel's leather goods and crafts store on Main Street.

Kabel has noticed a growing number of Cabela's-bound, outdoorsy types in his store, Tandy Leather Factory Inc., looking for personalized gun holsters, rifle scabbards and other items to complement their purchases at Cabela's. Those customers have increased his new business by 3 percent to 4 percent.

"In an economy like this, that's still a great boost," he said.

Community leaders who had hoped the town would benefit from the increased traffic they knew Cabela's would bring, however, have been disappointed.

I think we were expecting to see more growth and development than we've seen so far," said Mayor Melody Currey.

United Technologies Corp., which owns most of Rentschler Field, and The Matos Group, the site's master developer, envision a $2 billion development of stores, hotels, offices and high-tech companies. The Matos Group has estimated that the development would bring East Hartford about $57 million in taxes, but the recession has halted the development of the 7 million-square-foot property.

The land, once UTC's airfield, houses the University of Connecticut's football stadium, Pratt and Whitney's world headquarters and UTC's research center. The presence of Cabela's, considered a retail super magnet, hasn't been enough to persuade companies and developers to invest money at Rentschler.

Still, Dan Matos, president of The Matos Group, said he has taken the long view ever since he announced the development plan in 2005.

"We always said it would take 12 or 15 years to bring this plan to fruition," Matos said, adding that he's working on some hotel and housing deals.

"All of them depend on capital, and capital depends on this economic downturn changing direction," he said.

Matos said he plans to resume developing Rentschler in 2010-11.

"This is Connecticut, so things grow slowly here," he said. "It's a big plan. We're not changing it but it's going to take the time that we budget to get it going."

Currey, eager for an injection of tax revenue from Rentschler, has proposed an initiative that she says will stimulate development there.

"That's the only way we can grow our tax base without going directly to the local homeowners, and that's the last place I want to go," she said.

Currey has asked the town council to create a tax incremental financing district within Rentschler. The district would issue bonds to pay for construction of a road in 2010 into Cabela's from the Route 2 area. The bonds would be fully repaid to the district by tax dollars generated by the businesses that move to Rentschler.

Currey said the new road would entice companies to the site.

"If they think they have to wait three, four, five years for a road to be built, they're going to move on to another [site]," Currey said.

She has also asked U.S. Rep. John B. Larson, D-1st District, to try to secure federal funds for the project in case her proposal for the financing district fails.

"You've got to have backups in this game," she said.

Last year, Cabela's, the town's second-largest taxpayer, paid $196,000 in personal property taxes and about $700 in motor vehicle taxes.

Based on the current mill rate, the store would pay $750,000 a year in real estate taxes when its tax abatement expires in 5 1/2 years. The company's real estate is assessed at $24 million. Its personal property is assessed at $6.2 million and its motor vehicles are assessed at $23,000.

During the current fiscal year, the state paid the town about $911,800 in lieu of taxes for the UConn stadium. That number is expected to drop to $680,600 for 2009-10.

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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