The state and the city of Hartford finally reached an agreement Friday that paves the way for the state to take over the operation of the Old State House, preventing the threatened closure of the historic downtown building.
The city owns the landmark, but it has been operated by the financially strapped Old State House Association, which has managed to keep the building open only with an infusion of state cash.
Amid squabbling over the wording of a long-term lease, the two sides had been unable to reach an agreement for nearly a year. But the process became more urgent when the state threatened to discontinue its funding on Tuesday — the start of the new fiscal year. Without that money, the famed building would have been closed.
Friday's agreement marked a milestone in the long-running negotiations, but more work remains to be done.
"On Monday, we hope to execute an interim agreement with the Old State House Association to keep the Old State House open during the transition period," said D'Ann Mazzocca, executive director of the state office that operates the Capitol and would oversee the Old State House.
The current lease with the Old State House Association must first be ended before the new lease between the city and the state can take effect, she said. The city has agreed to a 99-year lease to allow the state to run the operations.
The city and the state have offered differing versions of the long stalled negotiations, and the confusion continued through much of Friday.
Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez had signed a lease and sent out a press release last week praising a deal. But the state had not agreed to the version of the lease Perez signed, and state officials said there was no deal.
On Friday, "the signed copy of the lease under the terms that we had sent them" was being hand-delivered to an attorney representing the state, Mazzocca said.
Perez's spokeswoman, Sarah Barr, said the city had been under the impression that the deal was completed a week ago.
"We thought everything was good to go, and we feel that way now," Barr said Friday.
The state came to the rescue of the landmark last year, averting its closing by injecting $500,000 for its operation. More money has been set aside for the state to operate it in the future, but state officials had said the funding would not be released without an agreement with the city.
House Republican leader Lawrence Cafero of Norwalk said the squabbling and delays were more episodes in a series of problems involving Perez and the state.
Although he is a Republican from Fairfield County, Cafero is a strong supporter of cities like Hartford — which he said is not common among downstate residents. Even with that underlying support, Cafero said, legislators are growing tired of the state having difficulty when it offers much-needed help to Hartford.
"There are obstacles, roadblocks by Eddie Perez because you want to do it your way," Cafero said. "Mayor Perez has to take a good, hard look — and realize after a while that people get numb to this. This has happened historically over and over again."
Barr said "the state has agreed to what the city had wanted," that the Old State House would be used for public purposes and "the building would be maintained to the same standards" as the state Capitol.
Mazzocca said that was simply Barr's characterization, adding that the building would be used for educational and community programming and "for private events, for fundraising to support it."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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