Connecticut Post (Sunday)
Ganim’s development deal to overhaul downtown theaters dead
BRIDGEPORT — When he announced in 2017 that New York City-based Exact Capital would renovate a pair of historic but neglected downtown theaters and an adjacent hotel, plus erect 10-story and 18-story residential buildings, Mayor Joe Ganim made sure the entire state knew.
Ganim that same year launched his failed gubernatorial bid, and often trumpeted what he called “the most exciting development project in Bridgeport and, I daresay, anywhere in Connecticut” while
on the campaign trail.
In stark contrast, this year that deal, which had been in financial trouble prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, was quietly killed with not even City Council members aware of it.
Planning and Economic Development Director Thomas Gill in an interview Thursday confirmed that, following what he said were several failed efforts to communicate with Exact Capital, his office and the city’s law department decided to pull out, leaving the future of the shuttered Majestic and Poli Palace buildings again in limbo.
“We did not hear from him during COVID,” Gill said of Craig Livingston, Exact’s managing partner. “So I sent him a letter in the beginning of May that basically was looking for an update on the status of his company and how it may have been impacted by COVID, asking about its financial stability and ability to proceed.”
“We never heard anything from him,” Gill continued. “We had sent letters in a variety of manner to him and we didn’t hear back at all.”
So the city sent one final piece of correspondence informing Exact Capital that, per the terms, it was ending the contract the council approved in September, 2017 and moving on.
“We could only assume that he’s abandoning the project,” Gill said. “To date we have not heard from him at all. We’re assuming he is not going to call us or at this point going to challenge us in an way and we’re formulating potential strategies relative to the theaters.”
He anticipated there will be interest from other developers given ongoing revitalization efforts in that same section of downtown.
Hearst Connecticut Media has submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for the letters to Exact Capital. The firm did not return a request for comment sent through its website and could not be reached through a handful of phone numbers. Exact and Livingston were mentioned in a New York Times article in May on Black developers and the subject of a press release issued by PR Newswire this month.
City Councilman Jorge Cruz, whose district includes downtown, said this week he was unaware that the arrangement with Exact had officially ended until he was contacted by Hearst and subsequently reached out directly to Gill.
“It sounds like there was a fall out,” said Cruz, who was elected in 2019 and so did not vote on the 2017 pact with Exact. “They’re (the Ganim Administration) just going to move on and see if another developer will be interested.”
Recalling the big press event the mayor and Livingston held outside the theaters in June, 2017 — attendees included not only the mayor’s top aides but even the fire and police chiefs — Cruz said, “The public will just lose confidence in the administration, in any administration, if they go out there with photo ops. People get all happy, a little hyped-up, then nothing happens.”
Ganim, however, found great success with another project announced later that summer — the transformation of the former minor league baseball park, also downtown, into a concert amphitheater. After two years of delays that effort, spearheaded by local developer Howard Saffan and concert promoter Live Nation, opened July 28 and just concluded its inaugural season.
Saffan and Live Nation are now planning not just next year’s shows, but this month received council approval to launch an annual summer musical festival at Seaside Park next September.
There were early warning signs that the theaters’ rehabilitation was in trouble when Exact failed to meet the December, 2018 financing deadline with the city.
“With historic types of projects there’s extreme difficulty in their financing. There’s so many different types of aspects to the capital stack. It’s like a puzzle,” Gill had said at the time. “But they (Exact) have been pursuing the capital aggressively. They’re confident they can get it.”
By then Ganim had lost 2018’s Democratic gubernatorial primary to Ned Lamont and turned his attention toward re-election in 2019. In April, 2019 Livingston was a guest at the mayor’s annual state-of-the-city address, during which Ganim reassured the audience, “Today I’m happy and able to report the developer has made substantial progress ... for securing financing.”
Livingston at the time had declined to comment.
Last November, months after the coronavirus pandemic struck, Gill’s office briefed council members on various ongoing projects, informing them that, though Livingston had tried but failed to “secure the financing before the crisis hit,” Exact was working removing asbestos from within the theaters.
“Around $100,000 worth of work was done,” Gill said Thursday.
Council President Aidee Nieves was, like Cruz, frustrated to learn what transpired with Exact. Nieves was a council member in 2017, though not its head at that time, and voted to move forward with the developer. After the firm missed its late 2018 financing deadline Nieves had publicly called for Livingston to return to Bridgeport and brief the council, but that never happened.
“Whoever the next person is is going to have a hard timeline,” Nieves said this week of Exact Capital’s successor. “They’re gonna have to come with their finances in place. We’re not gonna wait for another project of ‘we’re working on the funding.’ Can’t do that anymore. Either you’ve got the money or you don’t.”
Councilman Scott Burns said he is concerned about the ongoing deterioration at the Majestic and Poli Palace, recalling an April, 2017 tour of the structures Ganim lead to promote the search for a developer. Burns in 2017 voted against the deal with Exact.
“It’s crazy what’s in there, and it didn’t get any newer in the last four years,” Burns said. “It was definitely a difficult project.”