NORTH HAVEN – After two years of planning, First Selectman Michael Freda is finally able to say it out loud: Amazon is opening a fulfillment center North Haven, and bringing with it thousands of jobs.
But it was Gov. Dannel Malloy who made the announcement via a press release Thursday, issued only hours before the North Haven Board of Selectmen met to consider tax abatement’s for the project that will be constructed on the site of the former Pratt and Whitney Aircraft factory on Washington Avenue.
In the release, Malloy termed the deal ” a win for our state’s taxpayers and our economy.” Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman congratulated Malloy and DECD Commissioner Catherine Smith “and the partners that helped bring Amazon to Connecticut and expand its presence to North Haven.”
But the one “partner” who perhaps played the largest role in bringing Amazon to North Haven was Freda. While the release included quotes from Malloy, Wyman, Smith, Democratic Senate President Pro Tempore Martin M. Looney (D-New Haven) and Republican State Sen. Len Fasano and State Rep. Dave Yaccarino, it didn’t include any mention of Freda.
To right that wrong, on Friday, Fasano and Yaccarino released their own statement, saying that without Freda, there would have been no deal.
“The Amazon distribution center coming to North Haven is extraordinary news for our town that would not be possible without the hard work of First Selectman Mike Freda,” the two wrote. “It was First Selectman Freda’s efforts that attracted Amazon to North Haven. And it was his love for our town and unparalleled work ethic that propelled this development forward.
“Mike Freda is the hands down driving force behind Amazon’s decision to come to North Haven. But in the excitement over the news, our town’s dedicated first selectman did not receive the recognition he so deserved and he was not mentioned in the initial press release from the governor’s office announcing this project,” they noted. “The governor and lawmakers helped where we could. But it was First Selectman Freda who pushed, who fought and who succeeded in bringing these jobs to North Haven.”
Amazon will build a fulfillment center on the long-shuttered site that will bring with it between 1,800 and 3,500 jobs. It also will spark more development in the area, Freda said, as others interested in projects of their own in that area waited to find out what Amazon would do.
“It will provide job creation for North Haven, for the region itself, and also it will act as a significant economic development multiplier,” Freda said. “There’s many current developers I’m working with on projects on northern Washington Avenue that have been waiting to see what the results were of this, and I know of at least two of the five will be moving immediately into developing some vacant sites.”
Freda said he has been working with the owner of the site, Rabina Properties, since he took office almost eight years ago. “About two years ago Amazon came to us with a project that was large in scope,” he said. “We started by simplifying the local regulatory processes of creating a new zone there. We worked through the wetlands and Planning and Zoning Commissions very favorably, and Amazon was very impressed with the fact that we tried to quickly simplify what can – it was something they hadn’t seen in many municipalities in other areas. They liked that because ssometimes it can be a very complicated regulatory process.”
To facilitate the process, Freda made trips to Hartford to meet with state departments, whose approvals were needed because the property is on Route 5, which is a state road. And he navigated the process with four different parties involved – the site owner, the site developer, Amazon and the company’s attorneys.
He also worked to overcome several hurdles the project faced, including the building of Valley Service Road. The project needed to have the road extended on the west side of the property into the site to create a contiguous loop so trucks and cars could come into and leave the site both from Route 5 and from Valley Service Road, Freda said.
The town bonded $600,000 of the $2.2 million price tag for the road. “We had to ensure we had the other $1.6 million in funding from the state and federal government, so that was a critical part,” he said. “It was complicated by the fact that there is wetlands on the site, so we had to get approvals from the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and the Army Corp of Engineers,” Freda said. “We had our engineering firm Diversified Technology Company working very heavily with us on the project, and the State Traffic Authority also had to weigh in because it is a state road.”
Freda said he also had to deal with fire safety codes on the site. “I was faced with the hurdle regarding the fire suppression aspect of the site,” he said. “We had to bring Amazon up to the state Fire Marshal and the state Building Official, and had meetings with them with North Haven Fire Chief Paul Januszewski to show them a video of what the inside of the facility would look like once it was built. We had to get the state to sign off on it from the fire marshal and building standpoint.”
Locally, Amazon wanted some incentives from the town of North Haven. “We had to pass an ordinances on the tax phase-in of the property, and they had asked for a building fee reduction, which we also got passed in a town meeting,” Freda said. “Throughout the process, out of my office I was working with Rabina Properties, Hillwood Development Company, the developer for Rabina Properties; Amazon and Amazon’s attorneys, so there were four different groups we were working with to get this done.”
“We” included North Haven Town Attorney Jennifer Coppola, “who spent a great deal of time on this project,” Freda said. Then there was Town Engineer Jonathan Bodwell; Police Chief Tom McLaughlin, who weighed in on traffic; Januszewski, who worked on the fire suppression aspect, and Building Official Elio Floriano, “who was a big part of this with me also from a building standpoint,” Freda said.
But some of it was out of his hands, Freda said – specifically, the negotiations that took place between Rubina Properties and Amazon over the lease for the property. It was during that time that Freda could do little more than sit and wait and hope for the best.
“The project itself took a very long time to bring to fruition because the end user and the property owner had to negotiate their own lease,” Freda said. “At the same time, we were faced with the local hurdles to get everything done.”
Amazon also approached the state looking for tax credits for job creation and a waiver for sales tax for building construction fees, Freda said, which the DECD granted.
“So there were a lot of moving parts to this,” Freda said. “It was uncertain if we would ever be able to bring this forward. If it turned out at [Thursday night’s] meeting that we denied the incentives, the project would not have moved forward.” That’s why it was critical to have the meeting that included two applications, Freda said – one for a building fee reduction of 50 percent, and the other a tax phase-in over seven years.
“When we sum it all up, the town is not giving anything upfront,” Freda said. “The town is abating some of the real estate tax and the building permit fees, and we are still getting approximately $5 million a year in tax revenue plus anywhere from 1,800 to 3,500 new jobs.
“Plus, they are turning a vacant site into a very productive site with this 850,000 square foot facility which will yield approximately 1.2 million square feet in total space,” Freda said.
“We’ve found an abundance of talent in Connecticut’s workforce, and we are so happy to have this opportunity to expand in the state to serve customers,” Akash Chauhan, Amazon’s vice president of North America operations, said in Thursday’s release.
“Amazon’s decision to invest 1,800 new, good-paying, jobs in North Haven is a victory for the greater New Haven area,” Looney said.
But in the end, the bulk of the credit goes to Freda, Fasano and Yaccarino said.
“Our town is lucky to have the leadership of First Selectman Freda,” they said. “We were honored to work with Amazon under Mike Freda’s leadership to bring this project to fruition. Our town and our state is indebted to Mr. Freda and his exceptional efforts to create and welcome these jobs in our community.”