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Neighbors first saw Pfizer grow, now shrink

By Deborah Straszheim

Publication: The Day

Published August 04. 2013 4:00AM
As company dismantles its Building 118 in Groton, couple wonders, is it beginning of end?

Groton - Eleanor Gergen, 75, said she accepts what she can't do anything about. Still, she said she can't understand how a company could just walk away or tear down buildings without looking back.

"They just leave places," she said of Pfizer Inc. "They don't care."

Eleanor and her husband of 56 years, Zene Gergen, live in the only house on the north side of Greenway Road, up against property that encloses Pfizer's 750,000-square-foot former research headquarters known as Building 118.

Pfizer began demolition work inside the first part of the complex last week.

"We saw it go all the way up," Zene Gergen, 77, said. "And now we're watching it go down."

The loss of Building 118 extends beyond the $2 million in annual tax revenue the town would lose. It's affected the psyche of the community. Until about two years ago, the complex was bustling and full, but then Pfizer announced in 2011 it would eliminate 1,100 local jobs.

The presence of demolition equipment represents the economic potential now lost, including the hope that the University of Connecticut at Avery Point would expand there. It also has heightened fears that Pfizer may go away entirely, like the first and largest domino to fall.

Although the company has said it remains committed to Groton, the Gergens believe it's on its way out.

"We never though Pfizer would leave," Eleanor Gergen said. "And they're halfway gone."

A good neighbor

Eleanor Gergen's parents built the house on Greenway Road in 1956. She lived there when she dated Zene and he was in the U.S. Coast Guard. The couple became engaged on her 17th birthday, before he went overseas. He served four years, including one year in the Philippines, and wrote her 186 love letters. She saved them all.

After he left the service, the couple married and moved to Illinois so he could complete college where he'd started.

They returned to Groton in 1979, after Eleanor Gergen's mother died and her father moved and remarried. Zene Gergen bought the Greenway house and worked for local school districts, retiring as coordinator of special education in New London. The couple raised three of their five children in the Groton City home.

Pfizer was expanding in those days.

"Every time you'd look out, they were putting a new building up," Zene Gergen said.

Since he was an abutting property owner, the company invited him to planning and zoning meetings whenever it wanted to make a change. He said he always supported the expansions; he wanted growth and new jobs.

Not everyone else did. Gergen remembers one meeting in which Pfizer wanted to build off Bayview Road and needed an additional 6 or 8 feet.

Gergen said he was the company's only supporter in the neighborhood. He recalled telling his neighbors, "I don't know how we could possibly vote against progress."

He said they yelled at him that he didn't even buy his house, that his father-in-law had given it to him. He said that wasn't true, that he had a mortgage like everyone else.

"One guy was going to even punch me," he recalled.

The company ended up going forward with the construction. Later, Zene Gergen said, he received a letter from Pfizer thanking him for his support, saying if he ever wanted to sell his house, the company would buy it at greater than the market value.

Gone quiet

The neighborhood changed as the company grew. Pfizer bought the houses on the north side of Greenway Road and another street bordering company property.

First, it rented the houses to employees, but then it tore them down in preparation for possible expansion. Zene Gergen said he accepted that; he figured he'd think of his house as having parkland on either side.

By then, the company had become an institution in Groton.

"Your father worked there, your uncle worked there, you worked there," Gergen said. And it was considered a good neighbor.

One fall, Gergen recalled, he was trying to rake leaves after recovering from an operation. A Pfizer crew came into his yard and did it for him, he said.

Then about 10 years ago, everything changed, the couple said. Employees told them of a less relaxed work environment. People left.

Pfizer starting cutting its grass every other month instead of every week, Gergen said. The property became overgrown, and he worried about raccoons and skunks living in the weeds and getting into his yard.

Gergen said groundskeeping has improved over the last two years. But now he's watching something that disappoints him: Pfizer preparing to take down the complex it once hoped to expand.

Eleanor Gergen can hear the difference from the backyard garden that her husband built for her. It includes statues of the couple's five children, one of whom died five years ago. Eleanor Gergen "wanted them home" as she remembered them when they were all young, so her husband built the garden to help her heal.

It's quiet outside now, she said, save an occasional banging or beeping of a truck backing up. She said she's waiting for the heavy demolition machinery to arrive.

There's no more humming industrial white noise.

"Before, the only noise we'd hear was the generators for the air conditioning during the night," she said. "And now, we don't hear it anymore."

Zene Gergen said what bothers him most is the loss of jobs and revenue for Groton.

"It seems to me that this is sort of the beginning of the end," he said. "In other words, I just have this feeling they're going to leave. I mean, little by little."

d.straszheim@theday.com

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