The future of a multi-million dollar economic development project on Freight Street rests in the hands of the Waterbury Board of Aldermen on Monday night.

                     Story and Photographs By John Murray

    The members of the Board of Aldermen in Waterbury have a dilemma Monday night when they vote on a $19.5 million bond project that would unlock the redevelopment of 60 acres along Freight Street, and reacquaint the city with the Naugatuck River. At issue is whether to commit $5.1 million of taxpayers dollars to receive a $14.4 million federal grant from the Department of Transportation.

   While a 3-1 return on investment sounds fantastic, the sticking point for a few aldermen is that the project neglects what brought the city to the dance – the Naugatuck River Greenway project.

   Here’s a quick synopsis;

   • For 200 years the Naugatuck River was used as a glorified toilet for industry throughout the Naugatuck Valley. The river was so filled with contaminants that it once caught on fire.

   • Restoration efforts by the state removed a series of dams along the river in the 1990s, and industries dumping pollution in the river were heavily fined.

   • Community activist Kevin Zak began a one-man effort in 2005 to clean industrial debris and litter from a one-mile stretch of the river in the Platts Mill section of Waterbury. Zak later formed the Naugatuck River Revival Group and organized dozens of river cleanups with schools and church groups.

Community activist Kevin Zak was the force that dragged the conscience of Waterbury back into the Naugatuck River, which eight years later has morphed into a proposed economic development project on Freight Street in downtown Waterbury.

   • Zak organized the 1st Naugatuck River Canoe and Kayak race in 2007 and invited elected officials to participate. Waterbury Mayor Mike Jarjura and State Senator Joan Hartley were among the dozen community leaders that paddled and splashed their way from Platts Mills to Beacon Falls. The experience was eye opening and within two months plans were underway to use a $1 million fine collected from McDermaid Company for illegal dumping to launch a greenway project through Waterbury.

   • $5 million additional dollars for the greenway came from efforts of then U.S. Congressman Chris Murphy, and U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal

   • Plans developed by the Naugatuck River Greenway Committee in Waterbury broke the 7.1- mile project into five phases, starting in the South End of the city. There was enough money to build the first phase and develop a 7-acre park along the river on property donated by Mimi Neiderman

   • The city of Waterbury leveraged the greenway project to seek a TIGER grant from the federal government. The plan was to complete the greenway project, punch a road from Jackson Street through the heart of Freight Street and connect it to West Main Street. Additionally a loop from the greenway would sweep into downtown Waterbury and a 19-acre park would be built directly on the river and connected to Library Park by a pedestrian bridge. The city sought total funding for the greenway in the TIGER grant and millions more in economic development money to redevelop Freight Street.

Part of the TIGER grant application was the creation of a 19-acrce park directly on the Naugatuck River and connecting to Libray Park by a pedestrian bridge.

   • A wrinkle in the process came when the U.S. Department of Transportation awarded $14 million to Waterbury for the TIGER grant, but declined to fund the greenway because it didn’t fit the criteria of the grant.

   Independent Party alderman Larry De Pillo, a member of the Greenway Advisory Committee, is perplexed by the sudden change in focus. “Everything was about the greenway and now it’s not,” De Pillo said. “Now it’s about economic development and the greenway is standing alone. I’m concerned about that.”

 Independent alderman Larry De Pillo, left, discussing an issue with Kevin Del Gobbo, a special assistant to Mayor O’Leary who manages economic development projects.

   Republican alderman Steve Giacomi made a post on the Observer Facebook page about the vote. “It is important to remember/know that what we are being asked to vote on at the Board of Aldermen meeting is much different than what a lot of people have in mind, and different than what most envisioned when this process began.”

   Giacomi wrote, “When the city was awarded the federal TIGER grant we were not awarded funding for all of which we applied. The TIGER grant and $5.1M of city taxpayer money under discussion is for the reconstruction of Freight Street and Meadow Street into pedestrian-friendly roads, the reconstruction and extension of Jackson Street, and to build a footbridge to Library Park. Unfortunately the second phase of the Greenway as well as the 17-acre Jackson Street park are not currently part of the plans and the city will need to find additional funding if we wish to continue with plans for those two pieces. It’s vital that city residents understand how much has change from what we were originally told. Unfortunately I don’t believe the administration has done a good enough job informing and clarifying all that has happened over the last several months.”

Republican alderman Steve Giacomi is seeking  clarication before voting.

 The decision to separate the greenway project from Freight Street came from the federal government, not from Waterbury’s elected officials.

   “We asked for the TIGER grant to fund the greenway,” Mayor Neil O’Leary said, “but the Federal Government said no.”

   The TIGER grant, if matching funds are approved by the Board of Aldermen, would now fund the beginning of a massive redevelopment effort along Freight Street at the intersection of I-84 and Route 8, and include links to an improved train station with improved rail service to NYC, and links to downtown Waterbury with a pedestrian bridge to Library Park.

   “At this point we have to separate the greenway project from the economic development project on Freight Street,” O’Leary said. “They are now two separate projects. The TIGER grant is no longer the greenway project.”

Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary, left, and his economic development coordinator, Joe McGrath.

   O’Leary said the Freight Street project is the #1 priority of his administration and he has expressed this to Governor Malloy and state and federal officials.

   “The focus on Freight Street began when I attended an urban design conference in Lexington, Kentucky in 2010,” O’Leary said. “Experts from around the country studied maps of Waterbury and concluded that the Freight Street corridor was the most valuable piece of property in downtown Waterbury, and this is why we got the TIGER grant.”

   Adding to the economic development potential of Freight Street is the announcement last week that CL&P will be vacating its facility at the intersection of Freight Street and the Naugatuck River. “This is good news for the greenway, and for future development of the WATER Project (a potential billion dollar project on a redeveloped and remediated Freight Street)” O’Leary said.

   So what about the greenway?

   O’Leary said the first phase is fully funded in the South End, and the city has been talking with the officials at the Connecticut Department of Transportation about a $1 million repair job on a retaining wall that has stalled the project.

   “We have been working nicely with the DOT about the retaining wall,” O’Leary said. “The state will take care of it and we should begin construction of phase #1 of the greenway this year.”

   The rest of the greenway project is unfunded at the moment, but O’Leary said with the completion of phase #1, and the economic development project on Freight Street, there would be many opportunities to fund the greenway in the future either through private funds, or state and federal assistance. “We can’t get the whole apple in our mouths with one bite,” O’Leary said. “But the TIGER grant gets Freight Street off the ground. The Feds are setting the table, but we have to do our part too.”

   Which is the $5.1 million in bonding the Board of Aldermen will be asked to approve Monday night.

   Mayor O’Leary is meeting with the Republican caucus of the Board of Aldermen Sunday afternoon at 2 pm in City Hall to answer questions and address concerns. There are 15 aldermen and O’Leary needs to get ten votes Monday night to approve the matching funds necessary to accept the $14 million TIGER grant. Democrat alderwoman Anne Phelan is in Florida for another week, and Democrat alderman Ryan Mulcahy is not expected to support any O’Leary plan, thus leaving O’Leary three votes short of bonding approval. The mayor will need to convince three of the six members of the Republican caucus (which includes Larry De Pillo) of the importance of the Freight Street project, or the city will lose the TIGER grant.

   “I hope I can answer any of the concerns the aldermen have about approving the matching funds,” O’Leary said. “The focus of my administration is on the economic development of downtown Waterbury, and we are going to live by it, or die by it.”