Published May 22. 2013 4:00AM
In reading through dozens and dozens of emails between officials of the city and the New London Development Corp. (Renaissance City Development Association, if you buy into the fake makeover), I was a little surprised to run across what I took as a compliment, sort of.
"As is his wont to do, at least in his own mind if nowhere else, Collins means to switch on the proverbial kitchen light and watch us cockroaches scurrying to safety," wrote NLDC First Vice President Karl-Erik Sternlof, a Norwich lawyer and New London resident.
Sternlof went on to complain in the same email of my "yeoman service of striving to make it unlikely that any institution ever lends or any developer ever builds another project in NL town."
Sternlof blames me less than others, however, for the agency's failure for more than a decade to build anything new on the land it cleared by destroying a neighborhood and taking people's homes.
Sternlof, in the many NLDC-related emails graciously provided by the city in response to a Freedom of Information request, emerges as the wizard behind the NLDC curtain, the single most prominent voice on most issues.
He also seems to exhibit the most prominent strain of the arrogance that the NLDC has come to be known for in many city circles, ever since the eminent domain campaign.
Superintendent of Schools Nicholas A. Fischer, in one recent Sternlof email, "appears to be particularly resistant to facts if they fly in the face of his agenda."
In another, Sternlof observes: "At least Fischer remains disappointed and bitter."
The NLDC first vice president seems to excel at flippant, better than any newspaper columnist.
"I do wonder," he said in one email, "about how the cognitive processes such as prioritization and ranking, professionalism and focus all too often seem to evaporate to one extent or the other within the New London municipal limits."
I was startled to read one email in which Sternlof accuses one of the original holdouts in the old Fort Trumbull neighborhood, who didn't want to sell his property, of having "a history with disappearing lengths of copper tubing, I seem to recall."
By the time I read Sternlof's complaints about the price of coffee at the downtown Bean & Leaf coffee shop, I had become used to his tone.
Other symbols of the NLDC personality, to the extent an agency has one, can be heard in many of the officials' emails, from paranoia to secrecy.
For a period of time, the NLDC was obsessed with the details of moving school buses stored at Fort Trumbull, because Robert and Irwin Stillman, the proposing developers, complained they couldn't get funding if the buses remained. (Turns out they couldn't get funding, anyway.)
Eventually, many city and school officials got involved in moving the buses. City staffers even asked if Mayor Finizio could be the one to break the good news to the Stillmans that the buses would be moved.
And yet the NLDC folks complained among themselves when The Day wrote a story about the buses, questioning who tipped off the paper.
"It's sad that articles like these seem to periodically appear, since they have the effect of riling up some of the fringe groups that then have to comment online and show up at Council meetings to rant, etc. without even having full information," wrote John Brooks, the now part-time manager of the Stillman project.
In another email, Brooks worries about another problem that has "spun up Irwin (Stillman) big time."
You get the impression from the emails that the Stillmans are incredibly demanding, given that the land is free, questioning everything from the size of city trash receptacles to the cost of utilities' hookups. The demands piled up, from access to the harbor to permission to plant a hedge of trees that the city arborist vetoed.
Through all of these complaints and demands, the NLDC officials did all they could to accommodate the bristly Stillmans. They also acknowledged in emails throughout last summer and into this spring that the developers still did not have financing.
The NLDC has proven over the last decade it is good at tearing down buildings and getting rings on developers' fingers, but not so good at walking them down the aisle.
I have heard them blame the city, and not the developers' credit worthiness, for any financing troubles.
The most disturbing email I read was one from NLDC President Michael Joplin who worried in one communication that filing new plans with the city might lead to further delays. In the same email he suggested a small group of NLDC insiders meet privately to discuss business before a general board meeting.
"Let's discuss among ourselves only," he wrote.
This, of course, is exactly the kind of back-room dealing that Mayor Finizio promised in his campaign to do away with. He said he would abolish the NLDC, not rename it.
The same people who let the land sit idle for so long, through an entire real estate boom and bust, are still in charge. The property is looking more appealing than ever, now that the recession is easing and a new National Coast Guard Museum seems to be taking shape nearby.
The city has a legal right to take title to the land and has the staffing resources to market and develop it.
Now is the time for the mayor to flip on the light and scatter the cockroaches.
This is the opinion of David Collins.