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Another election may pass before Seaside’s fate is known

October 13, 2018

It was a little more than four years ago, in September 2014, when Gov. Dannel Malloy made an announcement that he was canceling a contract to sell the abandoned Seaside sanatorium in Waterford and declared that the sprawling property on Long Island Sound would become a park instead.

The surprise move seemed timed to influence the pending race for the 20th Senate District, with Malloy hoping to give a leg up to the candidacy of Democrat Betsy Ritter of Waterford. (She lost anyway, but Malloy rewarded her for trying to secure the empty seat for Democrats with a rich commissionership, a favorite party favor.)

Sen. Paul Formica of East Lyme, who won and kept the seat Malloy was using Seaside to leverage, has remained critical of Malloy’s decision not to sell the decrepit sanatorium property and dubious about the process the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection set up to find a private hotel developer to lease and restore the historic buildings designed by renowned architect Cass Gilbert.

I have been critical of Formica’s objections to the creation of the park. It has long seemed to me to be a fruitful objective to find a partner to develop the magnificent buildings into a hotel resort, saving and preserving them while creating a source of revenue. It’s been done successfully elsewhere.

The plan also helps sidestep the town zoning review, which unraveled the hotel plans devised by the developer who lost his contract with Malloy’s surprise decree.

There are signs, though, that the process to bring in a developer may be failing, and Malloy’s minions at DEEP apparently won’t admit it until after the election.

I think Formica can rightly issue a powerful I-told-you-so about Seaside when he meets his latest challenger in the 20th District, Democrat Martha Marx of New London, during a debate sponsored by The Day at 7 p.m. Monday at Charter Oak Credit Union headquarters in Waterford. The debate will stream live and be available later on theday.com for viewing.

Formica can justifiably complain that Malloy pulled the plug on a sale of the property four years ago, and the neglected buildings still are deteriorating, demolition by neglect.

The process for seeking bids for hotel developers has twice been delayed. The most recent deadline by which DEEP said it would be finished with its evaluation of submitted bids passed without announcement two weeks ago.

DEEP Deputy Commissioner Susan Whalen, in charge of the process, was in her office Wednesday but didn’t return my calls. She was said to be unavailable the rest of the week.

A DEEP spokesman said by email that no new deadline for completing the bid review and announcing a finalist has been made. The spokesman refused to characterize the quality of the bids, say whether any meet the required criteria or suggest whether an announcement would occur before Election Day.

I hate to be cynical. I would like to think it’s taking longer than forecast because they are evaluating all these rich, promising proposals. But I believe the process Malloy deployed four years ago to influence an election is being buried now, to keep it from being a factor in this year’s voting.

There are a lot of important issues candidates in the 20th should address Monday night. I would like Marx, for instance, to explain why in 2016, as a New London city councilor, she shamefully put her interests as a union officer above her obligations to city residents, organizing a rally against the Lawrence + Memorial hospital merger with Yale New Haven while the union tried to extract more concessions for the deal.

Seaside should be as much a part of the race this year as it was when Malloy made his election-eve gambit to pull the plug on a sale.

This time, Formica can point to four years of failure in creating a viable park out of the seaside property or saving the historic buildings, which significantly have deteriorated during eight years of Malloy rule.

If there were ever a good time to pull a rabbit out of a hat, a big fat developer willing to invest in Seaside, it would be right now.

Don’t hold your breath.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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