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A new industry for Connecticut

No deal is perfect, and certainly this one took too long  — until it was adopted too fast. But the harbor development agreement for State Pier in New London ultimately frames an exciting future for the city and the state.

The agreement between the state and Gateway Terminal, Ørsted and Eversource is designed to develop New London harbor, the state-owned pier and adjacent property into a working port facility for the offshore wind energy industry. The public-private partnership is being priced at an investment of $157 million, for now. It answers the demands of a longtime leading New London business, Cross Sound Ferry. It includes property negotiations with the Genesee & Wyoming rail line. It creates several hundred jobs. It gives the city some tax relief. The mayor of New London will be at the table, if the legislature agrees.

Done right, it could easily be the biggest thing since whaling gave the Whaling City its nickname. Poor performance at the Connecticut Port Authority and lack of transparency by the state have muddied the picture badly, but this is an exciting, transformative project, even if the governor's comparison of Connecticut to Saudi Arabia as an energy producer is awkward, to say the least. We prefer to compare it to the economic impact of whaling — also an energy industry. This one, however, won't be targeting animals.

The 467-page agreement calls for the transfer of State Pier from the state Department of Transportation to the port authority. That would be the normal course, given that Gov. Dan Malloy created the quasi-public authority to take over Connecticut's three harbors — Bridgeport, New Haven and New London.

Under the DOT, non-highway elements had not gotten priority. This was true for the river ferries, small harbors, buses and, until recently, for commuter rail. Malloy was wise to create a quasi-public port authority but unwise to assume it would naturally prosper. Bungling and low-grade corruption, largely exposed by The Day's columnist David Collins, laid bare the inadequacy of the authority from the start of its mission. Neither the executive director nor the board was up to the task. In retrospect, the administration should have launched the CPA with more experienced leadership and then held it accountable.

Gov. Ned Lamont came late to the realization that his office needed to take charge. He continues to operate with the non-governmental mindset of a businessman who makes his deals quietly and then announces them. He ultimately did step up when forced to take notice, restructuring the authority's leadership. Nonetheless, lack of regard for the public's statutory right to know is a major flaw in Lamont's governance style. Instead of announcing Monday that there would be voting Tuesday and immediately signing the agreement, the governor could and should have recognized the obligation of the public party in the deal — the state — to be transparent about the details in its investing of state and federal money. That applies to future arrangements, including the question of rail access to the pier.

In the long run, Connecticut taxpayers and environmental advocates will likely want to move on from the lumpy start. Connecticut has a major hunger to see progress, and this is progress. If the energy partnership starts to deliver the jobs and the excitement, and keeps the public informed, frustration will fade. The Day, however, will never stop reminding readers that they have a right to know, and that not knowing leads to messes like the performance of the quasi-public port authority under former Chairman Scott Bates. Quasi-public does not equal private.

The state Senate's Republican leadership seized the moment Tuesday to call for oversight of all quasi-public agencies by them, the legislative branch. With proper administration oversight the agencies, including the airport authority, which has been asked to mentor the port authority on best practices, can serve as the state's avatars, moving more nimbly than bureaucracies. However, the administration opened itself up to the Republicans' challenge and the discussion needs to be had.

Key to the harbor development plan now is for the CPA to have a full staff of professionals, plus state-level advice and expertise that will make it a competent negotiating partner and facilities manager. Introduction of an entire new industry and transformation of the energy economy will benefit the public as well as the investors if the task is assigned to the best and the brightest — and the most transparent.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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