Somers seeks $10 million in state money to help campaign donors

I'm sorry to say that, after two days of reporting on a tip that state Sen. Heather Somers is trying to secure $10 million in assistance for the proposed Smiler's Wharf project in downtown Mystic, being developed by donors to her political campaign, about the most I could learn is that it is true.

I haven't figured out all the details yet. But it is clear that Somers' attempt to get the state to fund a significant part of the project has been a closely held secret.

Somers herself did not return messages left this week with her Hartford press aide. When I caught the Republican senator on her cellphone at 1:30 p.m. Friday and said I was calling about the $10 million request for the Mystic project, she said she didn't know what I was talking about.

She then said she was in a meeting, would call me back and hung up.

But of course her name is on Senate Bill 638, which broadly proposes bonding up to $10 million as a "grant-in-aid to the town of Stonington for infrastructure, waste water management, opening public access and economic development along the Mystic River."

The bill appears stalled for this session, and I tried to learn whether other grant requests to the state are pending.

Rep. Kate Rotella of Stonington, a Democrat, told me she agreed when Somers asked her to co-sponsor the bill, because it seemed like a worthy project for the town with public benefits. She added she did not know there is growing opposition to the development, because of traffic and parking concerns and the size of the buildings, one up to six to seven stories tall.

Rotella tried to be helpful when I caught up with her on a hectic day Friday, but she didn't know much about the status of the $10 million request and suggested it was pending before the Bond Commission.

She asked an aide to help, but he wasn't able to learn the status of things before the end of the day Friday.

You would think Stonington Director of Planning Jason Vincent would know all about a General Assembly bill seeking a $10 million infrastructure grant for the town. But when I caught up with him by phone, he said he could only vaguely remember signing some paperwork and couldn't remember the amount of money involved.

Certainly there is a detailed accounting somewhere of exactly how all that state money for infrastructure to support the new development would be spent.

Vincent added he couldn't find any of the papers, didn't have time to look and suggested I call the developer, who he said initiated the request. I wish I could suggest that he is just inept.

Curiously, I later learned that both Vincent, his wife and the members of the developer's family were all contributors to Somers' campaign for her Senate seat. Vincent and his wife each gave $100, while five members of the Holstein family, which owns the Smiler's Wharf property, each gave Somers $250.

It is certainly legal, but I can't understand why a Stonington planning official would choose one candidate over another in a contentious battle for a Senate seat, when the town would depend so much on the cooperation of whoever wins.

Why take sides?

We don't know the details of what the $10 million would be spent on, but I would guess it includes the expensive bulkhead that would have to be built anyway for the project. A public access component might also make the state permitting easier.

I believe the development team has been disingenuous for suggesting that they are offering a public access component, without ever disclosing that they are trying to get the public to pay for that.

"Smiler's Wharf turns private property into a public access," project architect Meg Lyons was quoted as saying in one meeting. Yes, but there is a price tag on it.

Presumably the state won't get a cut from all the money that is made on the project.

There are already public paths along both sides of the Mystic River, a public lawn at the Mystic Museum of Art and a wide public park in Stonington. If the Smiler's Wharf developers want to provide public access, as other developers on the river have done in the past, that's fine. Let them pay for it, too.

A public hearing on the developer's request to change the zoning for the sprawling 7-acre project site is scheduled for 7 p.m. May 28, at Mystic Middle School.

I got an email at 5:30 p.m. Friday from Sen. Somers' press aide which answered some questions and finally acknowledged a pending $10 million request before the Bond Commission. I never got the promised call back from the senator and didn't get a chance to ask follow-up questions.

The email from her aide said the request for the money was made by the Town of Stonington for flood control, public access, infrastructure and coastal resilience, and the funds would be administered and managed by the town.

The senator and town planner Vincent should get their stories straight, because he very specifically told me the money was requested by the developer. Vincent insisted he barely knew anything about it and said to talk to the developer about how the money would be used.

No wonder Republicans want to wrest control of the Bond Commission from the governor. There are a lot of Republican donors out there who need to be fed.

If Sen. Somers wants to shake out $10 million in state funding for the town, how about sidewalks in Pawcatuck? That's a public improvement we all could get behind.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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