Mayoral Candidates Debate Economic Development
NEWINGTON - Mayoral candidates Terry Borjeson and Roy Zartarian sparred on economic development issues last week, after Borjeson released a related platform that makes the Cedar/Fenn Road and Newington Junction areas of town its focal point.

       Borjeson laid out his plans in the first edition of his campaign “white papers”-promised after talks with the Republican Town Committee regarding a potential candidate debate broke down.

       With the last Grand List figures showing a 0.19 percent dip-due largely to the Hartford Hospital property’s exit from the tax rolls-economic development dominated the discourse during the NCTV-hosted Meet the Candidates night for Town Council a couple of weeks ago.

       The night before, candidates for the Board of Education laid out their priorities for the school system-a slew of initiatives that includes the full implementation of core subject middle school Spanish and the opening of a $2 million, unstaffed STEM academy at the high school-while offering differing views on the level of education funding needed to see them to fruition.

       To that end, economic development must be the revenue catalyst that allows municipalities to continue pushing forward as the state budget crisis threatens grants in aid, Borjeson has said.

       The two campaigns have voiced similar priorities when it comes to economic development-revitalizing the long blighted former National Welding site and capitalizing on the Cedar/Fenn and Newington Junction area FastTrak stations through town oriented growth-but in his white paper statement, Borjeson said that gains in that regard have been slow to materialize under the current Majority. He referred to the National Welding site as “Roy’s Dirt Field” and a Cedar Street parcel as “Roy’s Dirt Pile”.

       “For the past two years in Newington, smart commercial development and the growth of the grand list has been treated as an afterthought by the Mayor and those in charge,” Borjeson wrote. “The resulting stagnation in the level of taxable commercial property has resulted in a flat revenue stream, and this has come at the exact time when Newington needs to protect its investment in schools, senior services and town services for all its citizens.”

       When reached by phone, Zartarian took exception to the statement, saying that although economic development has been a priority for the current Majority, Connecticut’s budget woes have made the endeavor challenging throughout the state at large.

       “Connecticut and Greater Hartford are all tough sells right now,” Zartarian said. “Connecticut being the last to pass a budget, and the Capitol City on the brink of bankruptcy, there’s been a ripple effect throughout the area. When you talk about economic development, we’re really in a tough spot.”

       In a press release issued Monday in response to Borjeson’s white paper, Zartarian pointed to ongoing talks regarding a potential hotel development at National Welding-held up currently as the town waits to see how the state’s plans for a parking garage fit into the mix-while stating that needed environmental remediation at the site slowed things down as well.

       But Borjeson disputed the remediation related claims, reminding him that the environmental work was largely completed by the time former Democratic Mayor Stephen Woods left office, thanks to a state grant for both demolition and hazardous material abatement.

       “Remediation has been done for years,” Borjeson said Friday. “We had it ready to go.”

       The site had already been generating interest from a number of developers-including one looking to propose a parking site-around the time the Town Planning and Zoning Commission passed its high density housing moratorium on the Cedar Street/Fenn Road CT FasTrak busway station area, Borjeson said.

       “We were moving forward,” he said. “The moratorium stopped it dead in the water.”

       At the time, TPZ commissioners said that they sought the moratorium in order to allow themselves time to define what constitutes acceptable transit oriented development and draft regulations accordingly.

       “The TPZ needed time to get its regulations in order,” Zartarian said. “It’s understandable.”

       The Zartarian campaign press release stated that the parking garage component-a potential development cost offset if the state determines that it adequately accommodates CT FasTrak riders-is in limbo amidst the state budget standstill.

       “Decisions about the future of this site are being made locally,” Zartarian wrote. “Let us not forget that Mr. Borjeson was all too eager to surrender land use authority for such properties to an outside commission appointed by his crony Dannel Malloy.”

       Zartarian is likely referring to a controversial 2015 House bill proposal that sought the establishment of a Transit Corridor Authority that would be enlisted to facilitate transit oriented development at the request of municipalities. The legislation-viewed by a large and vocal group of town residents as a move to usurp local control-drew alarm over an eminent domain provision that was subsequently removed.

       Borjeson, while fielding criticism for his testimony in favor of the bill as a member of CROCOG, argued that the Authority was modeled similar to CRDA-a Hartford area dedicated entity that Newington utilized for administrative guidance on the National Welding work-and would not have impacted any town already eligible for it.

       “Never were we at any time giving up any local control,” Borjeson said. “The bill was just to extend CRDA outside of [the] Hartford [area]. These are major developments, and many towns do not have the resources.”

       Over the phone Friday, Borjeson said that he “will not debate Roy Zartarian in the newspaper”, echoing his call for the two to lay out their positions in a public forum.

       “I don’t know if I’m responding to him or to his boss, Domenic Pane,” Borjeson said. “I’d be more than willing to debate Domenic Pane and Roy Zartarian together.”

       Borjeson was referring to comments made by residents via social media in recent weeks, alleging that members of the Republican Majority take direction from the RTC Chair-a claim strongly rebuked in a Letter to the Editor written by Councilors Beth DelBuono, David Nagel, Gail Budrejko, and Tim Manke.

       Over the phone Tuesday, Zartarian described references to Pane as a “red herring”, while stating again that talks regarding a debate were derailed when related information was sent by the Borjeson campaign to The Rare Reminder and other news media and subsequently published.

       “Obviously he is keeping with his theme that the Republicans can’t think for themselves,” Pane wrote in an email.  As you know I’m not running for anything. I guess it’s easier to attack me because the Republicans in office now have kept their promises to the taxpayers.”

       In the Zartarian campaign’s Monday press release, the Mayor and Pane both chimed in, pointing to the Town Planning and Zoning Commission’s approval of an assisted living facility-in place of the Amara developer that pulled out-at the site dubbed “Roy’s Dirt Pile”.

       Borjeson expressed support for the project, while wondering why work has not yet begun at the site. The developer is in the process of finalizing its financing, according to the Zartarian campaign press release.

       “In criticizing the Town’s current Economic Development activity, Mr. Borjeson neglects to disclose that these services are provided to the Town through a contract formulated when he was in office and his party in the majority,” Zartarian wrote in the press release. “My Republican colleagues and I are committed to appropriate development in town and intend to revisit, and restructure as necessary, this critical function as the current arrangement nears its end.”

       When asked for specifics over the phone, Zartarian implied that reshaping the Newington’s economic development duties-in the hands of current Economic Development Director Any Brecher on a contract basis-into a town staff role would be one among many related considerations.

       “That’s in no way a reflection of Andy Brecher’s abilities,” Zartarian said.

       Brecher declined a request for comment.

       Borjeson was quick to point out that under the Woods administration, Brecher worked closely with Council leadership to usher Best Market into town, while securing the state grant for National Welding.

       “A lot of stuff got done,” Borjeson said. “He’s excellent at what he does-he’s done it at the state level and he’s done it here, locally.”

       Included in Borjeson’s economic development platform is a call to make the town more “business friendly”.

       Borjeson’s press release laid out plans to speak with existing business owners in order to better understand their needs, while seeking state grants to help facilitate the arrival of new ones.

       “I will put the word out that Newington is open for business, that we are seeking new businesses, new developers, new restaurants and new mom-and-pop operations who can not only succeed here, but can be in integral part of our town’s fiscal rebirth,” he wrote.