Selling an airport expansion — one house at a time
NEW HAVEN — Peter Emerson is just the sort of neighbor Tweed New Haven Airport needs, and Sean Scanlon was glad to meet him.
Emerson, a web page designer in his 30s, came to his front porch on Stuyvesant Avenue when Scanlon knocked on the door recently. “Hi, how are you? I’m Sean Scanlon, I’m the executive director of the airport down the street.”
Scanlon has plied these neighboring streets all summer, hitting hundreds of houses as the Tweed authority pushes for a 43-year lease with a private operator, Avports.
The conversation flowed easily. Emerson moved here from Vermont with his wife, who’s doing post-doctoral work at Yale. A hobbyist pilot himself, Emerson strongly supports a planned airport expansion. Sometimes he walks the three blocks to the fence with his little boy, hoping to see a plane land or take off.
Emerson’s brother, Jamie, staying with the family in coronavirus, has used the airport, with its very limited service to Philadelphia on American Airlines. “If I could get over to England from here, that would be great,” Jamie Emerson mused.
“I don’t think that’s in the cards for us,” Scanlon responded, “but we want to get you to a couple more places than where we go now.”
The brothers would love to see a coffee shop with work spaces down at the terminal. “Stay tuned for that, that’s in the works,” Scanlon said.
This is state Rep. Sean Scanlon, Democrat of Guilford, co-chairman of the powerful finance committee in the Connecticut General Assembly — who could teach a master class on doorknocking. But out here, in his day job, he’s Sean the executive director of the Tweed airport authority.
Tagging along with him for a couple of hours on a recent midday in August, I see a different picture than the endless meetings and hearings, online and in person, about the planned expansion.
Certainly there are strong opponents — we visited with Toni Ginnetti, a longtime resident two doors up from the airport, who calls the expansion “horrible” — but there are many who favor the plan, many who have a concern or two, and many who are, believe it or not, unconcerned about an issue generating so much heat on both sides.
“We’ve been here for like 40 years almost. And in years past, we heard more planes coming over the house,” said neighbor Fran Ruggiero, a couple of blocks up from the perimeter fence.
She’s right. Back in the late ’80s and ’90s, many more planes did come in and out of Tweed, with several airlines operating. Scanlon fosuses on the technology.
“It’s just that over time, the planes get quieter,” he tells Ruggiero.
Just then a plane lands, though not one of the commercial airliners.
“See, that’s what I’m saying, these don’t bother me in the least,’ Ruggiero said. “You get used to it.”
Tweed’s goal is for an expanded runway and more flights on bigger jetliners, with the terminal moved to the East Haven side of the airport — an investment of as much as $100 million by Avports, which is owned by an affiliate of the investment bank Goldman Sachs.
It’s a stretch to say the region’s economy hinges on this Tweed expansion. But clearly, a metro area the size of New Haven needs a more robust airport. The lack of one hurts growth, makes it more likely that companies such as Alexion Pharmaceuticals will uproot its headquarters for Boston, as did happen.
Neighbors on Stuyvesant Avenue and surrounding streets, and on the East Haven side, have legitimate concerns. The outright opponents are going to lose this battle, as they should, but Tweed owes it to everyone to make the problems as minimal as possible — from wetlands destruction to noise to traffic to wafting fumes.
And Scanlon is the point man. If you’re saying, oh, sure, an influential Democrat wins a plum public sector post, which was held before him by another influential Democrat, former Sen. Tim Larson of East Hartford, you might be right. But consider: Political skills matter if your job is to bring as many people together as possible.
Not that Scalan was going to win over Ginnetti, whose husband, Ronald Arena, a chemist, studied fumes in the airport’s heyday and served on a liaison committee.
“I know your mother,” Ginnetti says to Scanlon, whose mom is an event planner. “And you were here many years ago helping her for my husband’s birthday party. You were a teenager.”
Scanlon agrees to return to talk with Arena and look at his research. But Ginnetti is clear, later, to me, about her opposition.
“I think it’s terrible. I think more planes means more pollution,” Ginnetti said. “Everybody is going to be breathing more fumes…Are we never supposed to go into our backyard? Never supposed to go for a walk?”
Tweed’s immediate goal is approval of the lease by the New Haven Board of Alders, a vote that could happen Sept. 23. Just this week, the finance committee agreed to advance the plan to the full board after opponents aired their views.
But Scanlon, as he approaches neighbors, isn’t talking about those goals.
Unlike in his campaigns, he’s not asking for support or a vote, at least not directly. This is more of a general outreach, letting people in the neighborhood know he’s the face of the place.
He figures he spent two to three hours out on the surrounding streets, two to three times a week, for most of the summer.
“Pretty much not a day goes by when I don’t talk to at least one neighbor,” he said.
One man, who didn’t want to give his name, had talked with Scanlon about Lyft and Uber drivers parking on the residential street — a problem Scanlon said he fixed — but didn’t know the manager he reached was the same person who now approached him in his front yard.
“They don’t bother us,” the man said of the planes, generally.
“Just the fumes,” his wife added.
For every point opponents raise, Scanlon points to a possible solution, often involving technology. “We’re not trying to turn it into like LaGuardia or JFK, we just want to have more service from New Haven, in fitting with the community, right? That’s all we’re trying to do,” he told one homeowner.
It’s a science and an art that’s new, in some ways, for Scanlon. “When I run for state Rep., you walk up to the house and I know the person’s name, I know their age, I know their party affiliation, I know if they’ve ever supported me in the past because we just have that information logged. In this job I go completely blind into these houses.”
He actually told one homeowner he doesn’t like to fly.
Despite the opposition, Scanlon has a claim in his airport job that he can’t make as a politician in Guilford.
“I’ve never had somebody slam the door in my face and say ‘Get off my lawn.’ ”