When Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim sat down in his office to speak with the Business Journal, he was still on an adrenaline kick from an event earlier in the day, when he manned the controls of a demolition crane to tear down a condemned property in the city’s East End.
“I was afraid that I was going to push the wrong lever and tear down a building that is not supposed to be demolished,” he said with a laugh. And if the image of the mayor physically removing blighted structures seems a little too ready-made for the news cameras, Ganim admitted his interest in generating press coverage to challenge negative stereotypes about Bridgeport.
“It captures attention if we do something like we did this morning, where people think of the city and say, ‘What’s going on in Bridgeport? It sounds like they have things under control,’” he said. “There’s always more we can do to better position and project. One of our shortcomings is not ramping up and communicating some of the positive things happening in the city as well as we could. It is easy to allow certain elements of the news to dominate — and, as with any major urban center with a list of problems, those stories will get out there by themselves.”
The campaign to erase Bridgeport’s condemned buildings, dubbed the “War on Blight” by the mayor, was announced last July, but Ganim acknowledged it was a long time in coming. “I don’t want to dump on the past couple of administrations, but it had not been aggressively attacked,” he said. “And we are aggressively attacking it. Next week, we are going to demolish a major number of structures on Stratford Avenue in the East End of the city. It is an area that has been neglected for decades. We are going to demolish almost a city block and we have two developers that were selected to redevelop the area with the type of retail development that part has not seen in a long time.”
For Ganim, who returned to the mayor’s office in December 2015 after previously serving as mayor from 1991 to 2003, the visual evidence of Bridgeport’s redevelopment is crucial to strengthening its economic viability and attractiveness. And no section of the city is immune from new construction.
From his downtown office, Ganim pointed out the original People’s Bank building on State Street that is being transitioned into a German beer hall, while a neighboring structure is being repurposed as a mixed-use development featuring the Stress Factory Comedy Club on its lower level and rental housing on its upper floors.
“We just got responses to an RFP for North Main Street for the old Poli and Majestic Theaters in the North End of the city,” Ganim added, referring to an entertainment complex that has been vacant and shuttered since the 1970s.
Still, urban redevelopment does not work on a “Field of Dreams” premise that if you build something, people will come. Last month, the lack of an adequate transportation infrastructure was cited by Ann Klee, General Electric’s vice president for Boston development and operations, as the reason the company exited neighboring Fairfield for a new Boston headquarters.
“From a GE perspective, they identified the challenge for the region and the state,” Ganim said, adding that the city is reliant on transportation infrastructure funding from state and federal sources. At a municipal level, Ganim said that the city is exploring ways to improve the ebb and flow of vehicular traffic, including potential improvements to its I-95 entrance and exit ramps and strategies to enhance traffic flow at the congested north end of Main Street.
Ganim addressed Bridgeport’s transportation infrastructure needs with congressional and White House officials during a recent trip to Washington, D.C., as part of the annual meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. He expressed optimism that President Trump understood the value in transportation infrastructure projects as a means to strengthen urban economies.
“The president has a background in building stuff. He understands construction, understands how many jobs a project can have. I think there is a real opportunity if we pitch our case properly on the infrastructure side and position Bridgeport to have the funding for public infrastructure project improvements to complement some of the private-sector investments that are underway now.”
But its mayor does not want Bridgeport to turn into a city of commuters. He cited the city’s recently reintroduced Down Payment Assistance Program, which enables qualified borrowers to receive grants of up to $15,000 toward down payment and closing costs for buying a new home in Bridgeport, provided that they can put down at least 1 percent of the purchase price of the home and agree to live in it for at least five years. In an earlier version of the program, borrowers would only receive a grant of up to $10,000 if they made a 2 percent down payment.
“We want people to own,” said Ganim. “Bridgeport used to have 60 percent of our tax base as homeowners. There is a certain positive element to having a large percentage of the population own their own homes.”
Casino gambling is one area of economic development he is not pursuing, although Ganim did explore it in a potential Donald Trump partnership during his mayoral tenure in the ‘90s. During a recent visit to upstate New York to visit his son at college, Ganim said, he stopped at a local casino and spoke with staff members on whether the outlying area saw economic benefits from the gambling venue. Their response was negative, which confirmed his doubts about the value of casinos as an economic engine.
“If it brings direct revenue back to the host community, that revenue becomes attractive along with the city becoming a destination,” he said. “A lot of people come in, go in the casino and drive out of town. Would we have gotten a different dynamic here? I don’t know.”