Tom Connors, who did not even live in Newtown the day the community signed off on acquiring the sprawling and abandoned Fairfield Hills hospital campus, is now leading the authority charged with overseeing its administration.
Mr Connors recently took over chairing the Fairfield Hills Authority. And he recently finished a monthlong series of appearances introducing himself to three top elected boards.
While Mr Connors brought the same brief outline to bullet key points he wanted to cover, members of the Boards of Selectmen and Finance, as well as the Legislative Council, each took advantage of opportunities to draw out deeper or broader perspectives on certain points.
Taking a seat before selectmen June 2, he said, “I hope this isn’t a presentation, but a conversation.” The authority chairman opened that conversation telling selectmen he is hoping to lead the authority to a new chapter.
He also noted that slowly but surely in recent years, the campus has begun to thrive. “You see things are happening,” he said.
A few days later he reminded finance officials, “By the end of the year, we’ll have two more tenants, the Ambulance Association and the Parent Connection.” He earlier told the council those new tenants would infuse the authority’s budget with $43,000 in new common charge revenue next year.
Kicking off his May 7 session with the council, he said “even the [campus] master plan is evolving, even housing can be discussed now.”
And to all three boards, he firmly asserted, “This campus is community property.”
Mr Connors suggested that the recent economic crises may have been blamed for costing Newtown large-scale development projects in the years after the Fairfield Hills acquisition. But he said that may have been a blessing in disguise.
He was happy to see the town and authority walk away from campus development proposals that were not the right fit, instead of going along just to start generating new revenue.
“Our patience has been a blessing — at the beginning we didn’t give it away,” he said. “I believe that was the right call.”
Three Goals Revealed
The authority chairman’s junket among the three groups of town leaders took just over a month, starting with the council in early May. That conversation launched one of the three goals Mr Connors hopes to achieve as the new chairman — strengthening communications between the authority and all other town boards and agencies.
He also told officials he is hoping to make it as “business friendly” as possible for potential developers seeking to pitch ideas and determine project feasibility.
Mr Connors said to that end, he wants to see an information and marketing resource on the authority’s website that will provide a “one stop” location for any prospect to view a road map of the process required to mount a development project at the campus.
The authority chairman’s third goal is to see Fairfield Hills become cost neutral for taxpayers from an administrative standpoint, as soon as possible. He noted that as of July 1, the authority budget line will draw $22,000 in taxpayer dollars.
During his visit June 2 with selectmen, First Selectman Pat Llodra pointed out that few years ago the authority was depending on more than $400,000 in taxpayer dollars annually. That budget primarily funded facility management being provided by a private company that administered almost all campus repairs, maintenance, and security.
At the same time, she acknowledged that most of those responsibilities and related cost have been transferred internally to the parks and recreation, public works, and police departments.
Mr Connors also told all three boards the authority was poised to begin a large-scale campus beautification project that will be underwritten by about $200,000 in fees the authority has collected from users and tenants.
The ‘Third Rail’
At each meeting, the authority chairman early on introduced what he referred to as “the third rail,” the fact that the latest Fairfield Hills Master Plan revision permits the consideration of development proposals that may include limited mixed commercial/residential use.
“The master plan has evolved to where we could have mixed use,” he told selectmen. At the same time he admitted the word “housing” upsets people when introduced as a possibility for Fairfield Hills.
“It feels like a high rise, or apartments, or single-family homes,” he observed. “But that’s not what we’re talking about.”
Mr Connors said he does not believe any mid- to large-scale residential pitches will ever fly. But if someone proposed a desirable mixed-use project and could make it happen, he said “we should consider it, and we should only consider [mixed use] with apartments.”
He also said the authority was willing and able to work with the Planning and Zoning Commission to craft a “tight plan that could work.”
“If we’re doing residential, it has to fit,” he said. “Is it five, or ten apartments — certainly not 60 apartments.”
Responding to a question from finance Chair John Kortze about developers waiting in the wings, Mr Connors responded that there are no current mixed use projects including residential components ready to launch.
He also told finance officials that no matter how good or feasible a proposal might be — even a perfect fit for the campus — “great ideas cost a lot of money to put in place, and we can’t raise the money for them.”