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A 'wrong turn': From giddy optimism to stunning disappointment

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New London - A little more than a decade ago, the mention of Pfizer Inc. in this hard-luck city spurred dreams of renewal, prosperity and almost boundless growth.

Pfizer's decision to build a $300 million research headquarters in New London, lured with a package of multimillion-dollar tax abatements and the promise of a state-funded overhaul of the surrounding neighborhood, would yield compounding benefits for the city at large, officials declared.

Small start-up firms would flock to the outskirts of the new corporate research campus, state and corporate executives declared.

The drug manufacturer itself considered expanding farther into New London, across acres cleared for redevelopment through buyouts and eminent domain takings.

And the city would hitch its fate to the fortunes of a steadily expanding, and perpetually dominant, corporate giant.

"Whatever adjective is better than 'exciting,' it was 10 times that," said Murray Renshaw, a plumber and a regular at City Council meetings and on his local cable TV show.

The early hopes make the bitterness of this week's announcement more acute: Pfizer will close its glittering waterfront complex and abandon New London in 2011 - right around the time its tax abatements from the state and city expire.

As Pfizer prepares to leave New London, some of the early dissenters feel a sense of sad vindication, some of its defenders feel sandbagged, and the controversial overhaul of the rundown Fort Trumbull neighborhood that Pfizer triggered remains unfinished.

"I've always been concerned about what they would do once that corporate welfare deal went down," said Lloyd Beachy, a former mayor and city councilor who was often a lone voice of opposition on the council to aiding the corporation. Beachy also helped lead prayer vigils to try to halt the demolition of houses in Fort Trumbull that followed.

"It sounds like Pfizer to me," Beachy said. "... To be honest, I'm not really surprised."

To Beachy and others who raised questions about the extent of public efforts to accommodate Pfizer, losing the company is nonetheless "heartbreaking."

"We did a lot of hard work to bring them to this city," he said. "And the citizens of New London have been paying for them, paying 40 percent of their taxes ever since they moved in there.

"Now we're at the point where Pfizer would be paying their full taxes," he added, "and they're deciding to just pull up and leave."

One of Beachy's chief opponents in his occasionally lonely stand against financial breaks for Pfizer, former Mayor Ernest Hewett, was more surprised than Beachy at the news of Pfizer's plans, but no less disappointed.

"You got to be (kidding) me," murmured Hewett, now a state representative. "I had heard that a while ago, but I said, 'There's no way in the hell Pfizer is going to do that.' "

Big plans

In the meeting notes from Sept. 1, 1998, no one is talking about leaving New London. Instead, officials from Pfizer and its engineering firm, CUH2A, were bullish on the future of the "New London Biotech Park," a proposed suite of low-slung office buildings that would be included in the city's 2000 Municipal Development Plan, which was then already being developed by officials at the New London Development Corp.

The land on which those buildings would stand, a parcel bounded by Howard, Shaw and Hamilton Streets, across the train tracks from the Fort Trumbull neighborhood and the peninsula on which Pfizer's headquarters would soon rise, would be taken from existing property owners and residents, including some land seized via eminent domain.

Pfizer has long sought to differentiate between the package of direct aid offered by the city and the state to bring it to New London - including a combined 80 percent abatement of taxes for 10 years and a $5 million cash grant for engineering work on its buildings - and the $75 million Municipal Development Plan, through which houses and land were seized from property owners throughout the neighborhood to make way for a hotel and conference center aimed at catering to Pfizer employees, as well as offices, high-end housing and a marina.

And directors of the project, including NLDC leaders, have always insisted that Pfizer never intended to take ownership or "any interest" in land taken by the agency via eminent domain.

But Pfizer's wishes guided the formation of the MDP - a 1997 letter from Commissioner James F. Abromaitis of the Department of Economic and Community Development to Pfizer executive George M. Milne pledging to increase the value of the company's expansion in New London "through a comprehensive, state-funded waterfront improvement and development project." In a later missive, Abromaitis directs that $8 million in initial funding for the NLDC be used in keeping with the "Pfizer concept plan" for the neighborhood surrounding the company, a reference to a sketch produced by CUH2A that largely matches what would eventually become the MDP.

And the meeting notes show that Pfizer executives did consider expanding into the land cleared along Howard Street as part of the NLDC project, into the buildings that city and state officials believed could play host to start-ups and small-scale firms seeking to be near a Fortune 100 giant.

The company considered installing a recently purchased subsidiary, Anaderm, a developer of cosmetic pharmaceuticals. And the land also offered potential "Overflow Pfizer Central Research space," space for Pfizer contractors, and "Potential for role as prime tenant, developer, landlord and owner."

Approached when the documents were first obtained by The Day several years ago, a Pfizer spokeswoman declined to arrange interviews with principal executives, but confirmed that the company had made an "inventory of properties" in 2002 in the event of a potential expansion, including the Howard Street property.

But at that late date, after years of legal battles and the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in Kelo v. New London, which upheld the property takings, the last thing on Pfizer's mind was further expansion.

In the years since the company's arrival in New London heralded a civic future of science and associated industry, Pfizer had merged with one corporate rival, Warner Lambert, and acquired another, Pharmacia.

"The landscape inside (and outside) the company is different than it was in 1998," spokeswoman Liz Power said in 2006. "The need to expand further in New London has not presented itself."

On Tuesday, less than a month after Pfizer completed another merger with a giant drugmaker, this time Wyeth, Power used almost the same words, describing the corporation's need to shed some of its now-redundant properties.

"It's safe to say that each time we've embarked on one of these acquisitions we had similar decisions to make about our site footprint," Power said. "And each time you're looking at a different economic landscape, global economic landscape and different portfolio as a company.

"It's a different time. We're a different company."

'We took the wrong road'

The land bounded by Howard, Shaw and Hamilton streets is still vacant, more than eight years after most of the buildings there were razed.

On Tuesday, a backhoe was parked near a pile of road work warning signs. A deep gully in the center of the lot chattered with late-season insect calls, and wind rustled tall reeds, cattails and young trees. In the ditch behind the parking lot that once served Hughie's Restaurant, an oil tank lay on its side, rusting.

Murray Renshaw once owned four parcels on that vacant lot. A supporter of Pfizer and the redevelopment project, Renshaw nonetheless fought the NLDC in court over the compensation he received for his land, winning a court case in 2001.

His enthusiasm has waned with Pfizer's decision to pull out.

"We've been told for years that we were just around the corner, and every time we got to a fork in the road, we took the wrong road," Renshaw said. "It's just another bad turn. We're not rounding the corner, we're going the wrong way."

In the Shaw's Cove Deli, tucked away on Hamilton Street, at the edge of what would have been the New London Biotech Park, proprietor Paty Daignault was serving lunch. She will lose $3,000 in annual income from Pfizer's catering business alone, she said, to say nothing of the disappearance of foot traffic as its workers depart.

"They took all those people's livelihoods," she said, with a gesture toward the vacant land behind her deli, and over in Fort Trumbull proper. "For what? To leave it all empty again? They ought to give those people back their houses instead of just screwing us again."


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