BRIDGEPORT — In a close vote, the City Council’s Contracts Committee preliminarily blessed a New York-based developer’s $400 million vision for a pair of historic downtown theaters — but only after meeting behind closed doors to view a pair of rejected proposals.
In fact economic development staff had to temporarily leave Tuesday’s meeting at City Hall and rush to their downtown offices to collect the paperwork on the three bids. Council members threatened to table a vote and the scheduling of a public hearing until more information on Exact Capital and its two, unnamed competitors was provided.
“If you want our vote on a project we should have the right to look at what is submitted,” Councilwoman Eneida Martinez said.
Democratic Mayor Joe Ganim, eager to make good on a campaign promise to reopen the theaters, then tout the project as he “explores” a run for governor, has been pressuring the council to act quickly on the Exact deal.
It includes renovating and reopening the Majestic Theater, turning the adjacent Poli Palace into a banquet ballroom, reopening the adjacent Savoy Hotel and building two 18-story and one ten story residential towers on city land.
Ganim needs the council’s OK to negotiate a more detailed contract with Exact over the coming months, with the goal of breaking ground in a year.
There was some initial hemming and hawing Tuesday over turning over the bid documents, which were not readily available, to the contracts committee.
“I really would ask the committee consider taking action tonight,” said William Coleman, a veteran redevelopment staffer. He assured council members of “a significant drop off” in quality from Exact’s proposal to the two others reviewed by Coleman and other key members of Ganim’s staff.
“It’s a wonderful project,” Tom Gill, director of economic development, told the committee. “It’s a straightforward project.”
Associate City Attorney Mark Anastasi told the council some of the information contained in the three proposals is proprietary and the city could get in legal trouble with Exact or the two other bidders if confidential information was made public. He said if the committee wanted the data, members would have to meet in private.
“Confidential. Confidential. Everything is confidential,” shot back Martinez.
“If this council wants that information we will get that information,” Councilwoman Jeanette Herron, a contracts committee chairman, said.
And they, apparently, did, after kicking the public and press out of the room around 7:45 p.m. when Coleman returned from downtown with the three bids. Just over an hour later the doors re-opened and the committee voted, three to two, to schedule an August 7 public hearing ahead of a full council vote.“I think they’ll do justice to the theaters and area,” Herron said afterward.
There are still some big unknowns. For example, Exact Managing Partner Craig Livingston at the start of Tuesday’s meeting said the development will have some solid financial backing — he dropped possibilities like JP Morgan Chase and Goldman Sachs — but may seek a local tax break.
“We’re working on our financing plans,” Livingston said. “We expect to be paying some sort of taxes. I expect we’ll negotiate it.”
Ganim on the campaign trail in 2015 criticized such tax deals made by then-Mayor Bill Finch. Gill said any tax incentives would need future council approval.
Councilman Scott Burns, a budget committee chairman who sat in on Tuesday’s meeting, afterward said: “I’m sure they’re (Exact) going to ask for something. That said, they do seem to be a strong, well-organized business and were far more impressive (than the competition). They really seemed to have their act together.”
Livingston also emphasized to the committee that while Exact is renovating a theater in Harlem, the firm’s experience is in residential properties, so the Majestic would be deeded back to the city to then find a tenant. “We won’t have much to do with it because we don’t have the on the ground knowledge” of the local arts scene, Livingston said.
Some critics have complained the local arts community was left out of the bid review process for the theaters. Council members pushed Livingston to find jobs for city residents, particularly minorities.
“This is a point of pride for us — something we want to do,” Livingston said. He added it should be easier for Extent to do so because “most of what we build is non-union.”
That might not go over well with labor leaders who endorsed Ganim in 2015. Glenn Marshall, head of the New England Council of Carpenters Local 2010, hoped the mayor would “encourage” Exact to use unionized labor.
“We have a lot of local Bridgeport residents, many of which are minorities,” Marshall said Thursday.
Several residents observed Tuesday’s contracts committee discussion, including Bob Keeley, a former state representative who is running for City Council.
“This is a rush job,” Keeley interjected at one point, adding later: “This was done … for Joe Ganim for governor.”