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Colt Project on Hold

Colt Gateway, the centerpiece of an effort to bring a new national park to Hartford, is stuck in neutral, and it's not clear how it's going to get back in gear

By DANIEL D'AMBROSIO, Hartford Advocate Staff Writer

September 20, 2007

Work has been stalled for months on Colt Gateway, the $160 million project at the center of a long-held dream to gain National Historic Landmark status for the former gun-making empire of Sam and Elizabeth Colt, and the developer says it's time for the state to step in with some cold, hard cash to get things moving again.

"We would like to see some additional assistance from the Department of Economic and Community Development and Connecticut Development Authority, basically the state and the governor's office," said Rebekah MacFarlane of Homes For America Holdings, Inc., the Yonkers, N.Y.-based company building Colt Gateway.

Homes For America is transforming the former armories built by Colt in the mid-19th century into a mixed-use development of apartments and commercial space.

Jim Watson, spokesman for the Department of Economic and Community Development, rejected the notion that the state has not helped with the project enough already, pointing to some $6.5 million in grants and low-interest loans coming from his department and the Connecticut Development Authority.

He also said it's "important to note that there's not a request before the state for additional financial assistance."

"If there were a request we would have to do our due diligence and evaluate it," Watson said.

In an e-mail message, he added, "While this project is certainly a public/private partnership, it is incumbent on Homes For America to demonstrate that it has the financial capacity to move the project forward and get it 'back on track.'"

MacFarlane acknowledged that Homes For America has received tax credits and other assistance from the city, state, and federal governments for Colt Gateway, located in the South Meadows near Interstate 91. But she said the problem is that most of that assistance, totaling nearly $45 million, isn't available until the project is nearly completed, or at least until it's well along.

It's neither. And in the meantime, says MacFarlane, Homes For America has poured $14 million of its own money into Colt Gateway since 2003, when it took over the 18-acre property.

"I think what we need to see is something to bridge the gap and get us to the finish line, whether that's through brownfield grants or other kinds of subsidies," said MacFarlane.

At the time they acquired the Colt complex, Homes For America was lauded by many observers as the "white knight" that would finally do something with the long-neglected property.

But progress has been slow. The façade of the South Armory, built in 1916 when Colt was gearing up for World War I, was revamped with $3.5 million of a $4.5 million grant from the Department of Economic and Community Development, according to MacFarlane. The million dollars left over wasn't enough to complete work on the façade of the East Armory, the most prominent of the remaining Colt buildings, sporting the famous onion-shaped blue dome crowned with a replica of the charging colt that symbolized the arms maker.

To date, only 34 of the planned 238 apartments in the South Armory, including one that MacFarlane lives in, are leased and occupied. The apartments were originally scheduled for completion in spring 2007. In fact, the other 204 apartments have yet to be built. The armory remains mostly an empty shell.

Former Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art Director Willard Holmes, who now works at a museum in Houston, was involved in the initial effort to get the Colt project off the ground. The Wadsworth holds a large collection of Colt artifacts and artwork.

Holmes and his family spent their last two days in Hartford in one of the Colt Gateway apartments to smooth the sale of their house in August, and Holmes said it was "quite clear" to him the project was in trouble.

"Piles of dirt that should have been moved in 24 hours had weeds growing four feet tall," said Holmes. "I can remember saying to my wife, 'This project has stalled and this is very, very sad.' People need to accept the fact that to do a thing like this you have to spend a lot of money."

Looking out of the window of his apartment at downtown Hartford, Holmes thought about how the "physical distance is so close, but culturally and economically the distance is so great."

"It was a very kind of poignant way to say goodbye to Hartford," said Holmes. "To attempt and fail with Colt Gateway is probably worse than not having attempted it in the first place."

As for the two bottom floors of the five-story building, slated for commercial and retail use, no leases are signed, although MacFarlane said discussions with potential occupants are ongoing. She declined to give any names.

In the courtyard formed by the armories, the two oldest buildings in the complex are still standing, more or less. They are the forge shop and foundry built in 1855, where factory superintendent Elisha K. Root performed his precision-manufacturing magic. Rusty barrels and windows boarded up with graying plywood stand as a testament to years of neglect, but MacFarlane said it doesn't make sense to begin work on the courtyard now, when those funds will become available in 2008 and 2009.

Homes For America has had successes on either side of the main factory complex — the Insurity insurance company, with 350 employees, occupies Colt's former saw tooth-roofed machine shop, built in 1916, adjacent to the South Armory. And the Capitol Region Education Council recently took over two buildings, a former garage and former warehouse, on the opposite side of the complex for its River Street School Autism Program.

"We were able to acquire two great tenants," said MacFarlane. MacFarlane was reluctant to place a dollar figure on the amount of additional help Homes For America needs from the state. But she said one of their lenders — USA Capital of Las Vegas — has gone bankrupt, putting Homes For America in the position of having to buy them out for approximately $10 million.

"That's an additional amount Homes for America has to come up with," said MacFarlane. "They're in a liquidated trust right now. They own the liens and notes on four of the vacant buildings. In order for us to proceed with construction we have to buy them out."

So what if $10 million was forthcoming from the state for the project?

"$10 million would help," said MacFarlane. "That $10 million would start the construction back up again."

Bill Hosley, a former curator at the Wadsworth Atheneum who put on a popular show about Sam and Elizabeth Colt in 1996, says his passion for Coltsville, as the 19th century home and factory complex was known, stretches back nearly 20 years. Today, Hosley is executive director of the New Haven Museum and Historical Society, but he still serves on an ad hoc committee on the Coltsville National Park Project, formed by U.S. Rep. John Larson, D-1st District, which next meets on Sept. 23.

Hosley has been vocal about what he sees as Hartford's curious lack of enthusiasm for the Colt project, in spite of the letters of support that have come from Mayor Eddie Perez's office, the MetroHartford Alliance, and others.

"Although I've been a relentless cheerleader for this effort going on 15 years, I am beginning to wonder," said Hosley. "If Hartford fails to nail down this National Park it would be a great disappointment."

Larson has lent key support to the Colt effort, along with U.S. Sens. Christopher Dodd and Joseph I. Lieberman. Contacted by the Advocate, Larson said last week the designation of Coltsville as a National Historic Landmark, hopefully leading to a National Park designation, "will help revitalize the City of Hartford and preserve this vital part of our past for generations to come."

"Coltsville is the birth place of our country's Industrial Revolution," said Larson. "Recognizing that and the role of Samuel and Elizabeth Colt in revolutionizing American business will be an important step to preserving our capitol city's heritage."

National Park Service Planner James O'Connell, who is shepherding the Colt nomination through the National Historic Landmark process, said it's hard to overstate the role Colt played in propelling the United States to the forefront of industrial nations in the 19th century. The precision machine tools and manufacturing techniques developed for Colt's firearms factory spun off into many other industries.

"Automobiles, bicycles, sewing machines, and typewriters were all invented by people who worked at Colt," said O'Connell. "One guy who worked at Colt, Henry Leland, started both Lincoln and Cadillac in Detroit."

O'Connell said the Connecticut Valley was the Silicon Valley of its day.

"It was the whole machine tool industry that starts in New Haven and the Connecticut Valley," he said. "Autos and everything else comes out of the Connecticut Valley. It was the high tech center of the nation for a century and Colt was at the heart of it."

Nevertheless, last October, a special advisory committee to the National Park Service tabled the proposal to bestow National Historic Landmark status on the Colt property — a necessary precursor to being considered for National Park status — because of concerns raised by a third party that development plans for the armories would compromise their historic integrity.

Gov. M. Jodi Rell wrote a letter to the chairman of the National Park System Advisory Board expressing her "bitter disappointment" with the decision. And MacFarlane said that over the last year, she has had members of the committee visit the Colt Gateway project, so she could show them how it is incorporating the historical features of the armories. She says she feels "99 percent sure" that this year, the Coltsville project will get the thumbs up.

O'Connell agrees that the Colt project has a "very strong nomination," and he should know, as he wrote much of the nomination from his Boston office.

"I think one of the key things Coltsville has, it's kind of a complete factory neighborhood if you will, with factories, worker housing, the mansion of the family that ran the company, the company church and the parish house, which Mrs. Colt built," said O'Connell. "That's part of the idea, to tell the story of the whole neighborhood, not just the factory, though it drove everything else."

If Coltsville becomes a national park, the Colt story will likely be told by exhibits in one or both of the 1855 buildings in the courtyard, not in the armories. Visitors will not be stepping back in time to see the factory as it once was.

But as O'Connell points out, any discussion of a national park is moot until the special commission votes again. If Coltsville fails to clear the hurdle of achieving National Historic Landmark status, "there's not much to talk about." O'Connell hopes the vote by the special commission will come as soon as next month, but Larson's office warned that no date for the vote has been set.

Homes For America will not abandon the Colt project, regardless of how the vote goes, according to MacFarlane.

"We're not quitters," she said. "We're not going to walk out, but we do need assistance."

If Colt Gateway did fail, says MacFarlane, it would "hinder the efforts to become a National Historic Landmark and park."

Hosley believes it will do more than that.

"It wouldn't hinder it," he said. "It will kill it."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
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