Southeastern Connecticut looks to future in opportunity zones, port, casinos

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Mohegan — Local economic development officials spoke positively of the inaugural conference on opportunity zones the state held Wednesday, a topic that also came up at the New England Real Estate Journal's inaugural Connecticut Summit held Thursday at Mohegan Sun.

Development projects on tracts included in the federal Opportunity Zone Program are eligible for federal tax incentives for investors. Connecticut has 72 opportunity zones, including three in New London, three in Norwich and one in Groton.

In between summit sessions Thursday, New London Planning Director Felix Reyes told The Day the insight that stuck with him the most came from Erik Johnson, his counterpart in Hartford: The opportunity zone is not about a grand slam or a $500 million development, but starting with one developer and one project.

For New London, Reyes cited the real estate company Parker Benjamin, which is advertising "micro-loft" apartments at 38 Green St. The Bob's Furniture development is also in an opportunity zone.

Town of Groton Economic and Community Development Manager Paige Bronk said the Wednesday conference was great for networking and demonstrated the state collaborating with municipalities.

He commended the newly launched site ctopportunityzones.com, saying it "will really put the state ahead of others in a proactive way." The site includes a database of development opportunities and a mapping tool.

Norwich Community Development Corporation President Bob Mills said by phone he appreciated that the state brought together communities, developers, investors, engineering firms and architects.

"The new law created a new category of investor that nobody has the experience pulling together," Mills said, noting that it's become more clear that opportunity zone development will be a longer-term process.

David Kooris, deputy commissioner of the state Department of Economic and Community Development, said at the Connecticut Summit on Thursday that one advantage Connecticut has compared to other states is that poverty is relatively concentrated, meaning the opportunity zones are in line with other priorities.

In response to a question about opportunity zones with brownfields or flood zones, Kooris said he's less concerned about brownfields because there are so many programs and resources available. But he said there is work to be done with the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection to determine what a balanced approach to growth looks like in Connecticut.

Kooris also has been serving as acting chairman of the troubled Connecticut Port Authority board since July, and the summit Thursday was happening just as news broke of state auditors releasing a damning 33-page audit of spending at the quasi-public agency in fiscal years 2018 and 2019.

Officials talk future of wind, manufacturing and gaming

In talking about opportunity zones in the third and final session Thursday, Kooris was speaking as DECD deputy commissioner, but he was wearing his port authority hat for an earlier session on development opportunities with manufacturing and port redevelopment.

He said while there is no guarantee Connecticut will get any of the activity resulting from the development of offshore wind turbines, he is confident the state will see an "outsized economic impact."

Kooris added that "the real brass ring that we're ultimately reaching for" is manufacturing capacity migrating from Europe to North America.

He and Naval and Maritime Consortium Executive Director Ali Halvordson spoke to the respective capital needs of the wind industry and Electric Boat, with Halvordson pointing to crane heights, loading capacity, bay heights and advanced HVAC.

"EB's going to be competing for capacity with wind, so we need to work together to grow," Halvordson said.

Another session at the Connecticut Summit focused on the past, present and future of the gaming industry in the state, featuring Rodney Butler from the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, Thayne Hutchins from the Mohegan Tribe and state Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague.

Loyal to the tribes, Osten was critical of efforts to bring MGM into the state — she said we "need to tell them, 'Thanks but no thanks; have a good time in the state of Massachusetts and the state of New York'" — and of the Lamont Administration for not signing onto sports betting.

Butler said sports betting and iGaming are "slipping through our fingers as we speak," noting that New Jersey got $70 million in tax dollars from online gaming in the first nine months of 2019.

As opposed to businesses that threaten to leave Connecticut, Hutchins said of the Mohegans, "Our reservation's here. We're not going anywhere. We've been here 400 years; we'll be here another 400."

e.moser@theday.com

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