Opposition Grows to Bridgewater Project in Stamford

Apr 29, 2013

Controversy is heating up over a plan by the hedge fund Bridgewater Associates to move from Westport to Stamford - with the help of taxpayer dollars. But Stamford officials are under increasing pressure to get it done.

Ever since Governor Dannel Malloy announced his plan to pay Bridgewater $115 million to move from Westport to Stamford’s waterfront, opposition has been fierce. Especially because the hedge fund wants to move into the area that used to be Stamford’s last full-service boatyard. But the deal for the city just got sweeter. In exchange for a bit of land that will let the developer of the new headquarters build a new boatyard, Stamford will get $5 million.

That pays for some pretty important things, says Stamford’s mayor Michael Pavia:

“Capital improvements that the city had either planned, or the city feels are important to having completed. Such as an animal shelter. Such as improvements to the marinas. Such as improvements to parks.”

The developer will even pay for Stamford’s Independence Day fireworks, which the city had to cancel last year because it couldn’t afford them.

The real sweeteners, though, are coming from the state of Connecticut. $50 million to repair and expand a really old railroad underpass by 2016 – the same year Bridgewater wants to move in. $25 million on environmental clean-up and other improvements in and around the South End, where the new headquarters will be.

 “No one’s actually talking about the $100-$200 million of infrastructure improvements the city’s going to receive as a result of Bridgewater," says Stamford’s director of administration, Michael Handler.

“No one’s actually talking about this. They’re talking about boats.”

Opponents of the deal say it’s not just about boats and the multi-billion-dollar boating industry – it’s about state influence in Stamford, where Malloy’s 14-year term as mayor still looms large. 

“It’s the city of Stamford’s residents, boards, and administration that should be making the decisions about how the city’s land is developed and used," says Cynthia Reeder, a member of the group Save Our Boatyard. 

"Not officials in Hartford."

And not a big hedge fund, says Save Our Boatyard’s Randy Dinter:

“It’s like basically a corporation rings the dinner bell, and politicians and appointed officials salivate like Pavlov’s dogs, and they have about as much shame.”

The issue’s become a hot one in the campaign for Stamford’s next mayor. One candidate has already announced his opposition to the $5 million boatyard deal. And while Pavia isn’t running again, he’s obviously aware of the controversy. That’s why he keeps pointing out that Stamford’s various local boards, not him, are in charge of finally making a decision on whether Bridgewater is allowed to move there.

“It is a very complicated process that’s about to unfold," Pavia says.

"It’s not like the mayor against the world. It’s not!”

Save Our Boatyard is betting on drawing out that process as long as possible. It’s urging officials on Stamford’s local boards to vote against the various deals that come before them, hoping Bridgewater might lose patience. But the developer says the project is on track for a 2016 move-in date.

And Save Our Boatyard has some weaknesses, according to Barry Hersh, a Stamford resident and clinical associate professor of real estate at New York University. 

“The opposition is not a neighborhood. It’s people who live all over including Darien and New Canaan and Greenwich," Hersh says. 

Hersh says boaters across Fairfield County may be powerful – but they can’t get to local Stamford officials: “Those elected officials aren’t going to look at those faces and say, ‘Oh, those are my voters.’”

And those elected officials will definitely be thinking about bringing Stamford out of the grips of a terrible recession.

Joe McGee is Vice President of the Business Council of Fairfield County and the former state head of economic development. 

“We’re going to be proud of ourselves for saying ‘the world’s largest hedge fund is not going to come to Stamford? You’d have to be an idiot to do that to yourself," McGee says.

"This is a city that’s down 10,000 jobs from six years ago. It has a 25% vacancy rate. And it really needs to solidify its reputation as a major financial center along the East Coast.”

So despite all this opposition to the Bridgewater plan, McGee says: think about it in these terms.

“Boatyard versus world’s largest hedge fund.”

Just try and guess who wins that argument.