Ganim says theaters a go, but developer dodges questions
BRIDGEPORT — It was Mayor Joe Ganim’s hour, but a guest at his annual State of the City address was perhaps a bit more newsworthy.
Craig Livingston, managing partner with Exact Capital in New York, sat at a center dining table in the University of Bridgeport’s banquet hall Tuesday, eating lunch with around 300 other business people and city officials listening to Ganim’s speech.
It has been months since Livingston made a public appearance — let alone any statements — related to Exact’s ambitious proposal to help Ganim deliver on a 2015 campaign promise to renovate and reopen the Majestic and Poli Palace theaters downtown.
Exact’s year deadline to arrange its financing came and went in late December, leaving a big question mark hanging over the fate of a redevelopment that some skeptics viewed as unlikely after it was announced in June 2017.
Ganim, who is running for re-election, sought Tuesday to convince his audience that the theaters, plus an accompanying hotel and residential towers, will be built.
“Today I’m happy and able to report the developer has made substantial progress ... for securing financing,” the mayor said, asking Livingston receive a round of applause “for his commitment.”
But the developer refused to talk to Hearst Connecticut Media about what the mayor meant by “substantial progress.”
“I’m not doing press today,” Livingston said as he left the building.
He was seated next to Tom Gill, Ganim’s development director. Gill, in an interview, said of Exact’s financing, “We’re pleased with what we have seen.”
Because the theaters are historic, Gill said, “This is a project that, from a financing and developer’s point of view, is very complicated. ... When you’ve got a nice project, you want to work to a positive end.”
City Council President Aidee Nieves, who has wanted Livingston to visit Bridgeport to update her and her colleagues, pulled the developer aside before he left the luncheon.
Afterward Nieves said, “We’re going to try and arrange to have him come.”
Livingston brought some of this pressure upon himself. He said in November, 2017 that Exact intended “to put a shovel in the ground” in “the back half” of 2018 and would enjoy proving “the naysayers wrong.”
Meanwhile, Ganim has continually touted Exact’s plans as a sure thing, calling them “the most exciting development project in Bridgeport and, I daresay, anywhere in Connecticut” during his failed 2018 bid for governor.
Over the weekend, in an open letter to residents about his just-proposed 2018-19 budget, the mayor listed the Majestic and Poli among a handful of projects totaling “over $1 billion in economic development ... breaking ground across the city.”
Fits and starts
The delays with the theaters are emblematic of the time and effort it takes for big, flashy economic development announcements in Bridgeport to go from rhetoric to bricks and mortar.
Many of the other projects highlighted Tuesday by the mayor were similarly featured in his last three State of the City events since he returned to office in December 2015. Some were initiated under Ganim’s immediate predecessor, former Mayor Bill Finch, or by the mayor before him, John Fabrizi, or even during Ganim’s first administration in the 1990s.
A deep water marina and a seafood restaurant opening soon at the Steelepointe Harbor site are the latest addition to an economic development project that dragged on for decades before Finch finally got something — Bass Pro Shops — built there.
The natural gas-fired power plant rising near the University of Bridgeport’s South End campus likewise was initiated under Finch.
Besides the theaters, another development Ganim can claim as his own — an amphitheater at the shuttered downtown minor league baseball park — was supposed to begin hosting concerts this summer. Though developer Howard Saffan has made substantial progress renovating the ballpark, that grand opening has been pushed back to 2020.
“By this time next year this venue will be fully operational (and) help make Bridgeport even more of a center for music, entertainment, arts and culture,” Ganim told his audience.
The mayor also highlighted plans for downtown ice rinks which have some stiff opposition.
And the mayor’s speech again included MGM Resorts’ proposed waterfront casino that faces state legislative and legal battles.
“Development takes a long time,” said Cowlis Andrews, who is chairman of the board that oversees public housing in Bridgeport, and who has worked for two decades in the state Department of Economic and Community Development.
Andrews, in the audience Tuesday, said he is friends with Livingston — they campaigned together for Barack Obama in 2008 — and is “confident” that Exact will get the downtown theaters renovated: “I think he can pull it off.”
Jeffrey Klaus, a regional president with Webster Bank, expressed confidence in Ganim when introducing the mayor Tuesday. Klaus recalled the uncertainty during last year’s State of the City about whether Ganim would be sworn in as governor in 2019.
Noting the severe economic troubles facing Connecticut, Klaus told Ganim, “You might have gotten the better end of the deal. Remember, sometimes the second mouse gets the cheese.”