Army Engine Plant deal finally takes off
Connecticut Post, Bridgeport, Conn.
STRATFORD — The sprawling, long-shuttered Army Engine Plant, which once churned out the World War II Corsair fighter-bomber by the thousands, will be sold to a developer and put back on the tax rolls.
Mayor John Harkins said Wednesday that Town Hall has high hopes for the huge property, which has sat shuttered since the mid-1990s.
"This will impact an entire area," Harkins told the Connecticut Post. "This is the biggest economic development project that this town has ever seen, and it's going to become a very vibrant area of town. It'll bring jobs and opportunities for many."
The developer is Point Stratford Renewal, which was selected in August 2012 as the prime developer for the 77-acre site.
In recent weeks, Harkins had lamented that the deal had been held up by the 16-day government shutdown a few weeks back.
"We were on it every day, calling the Army and a lot of other people," Harkins said.
The mayor said the site will eventually see a "mixed-use" development. Town officials said after it's cleaned up, which will likely take many months, the property will gradually become transformed into an attractive and "vibrant" part of town with a greenway, hotel, apartments, retail outlets and other amenities.
"This is the No. 1 property that the public is interested in," Planning and Zoning Administrator Gary Lorentson said. "It will be market-driven, so it's difficult to say what the market will bear. But I think that we all want something vibrant that brings people to the water -- marinas, quality hotels, entertainment, spas, residential."
He said the town's bicycle trail will also be extended along the length of the property.
"Public access will be very important," Lorentson said. "The bike trail will get longer."
But a number of unknowns remain.
For example, it's too early to say how long the cleanup will take and when development can begin in earnest.
There's also the Connecticut Air & Space Center, which is using part of the old Avco plant -- Buildings 6 and 53 -- to restore a number of historic air ships, including the Corsair that used to grace the pedestal at the entrance to Sikorsky Memorial Airport, four historic Sikorsky helicopters and several 1960s-era military trainer jets.
"There's been a lot of chatter among our members on what might happen with a sale," said Andrew King, one of members of the center. "But Mayor Harkins has been very supportive on what we're doing down here."
The site has three main buildings and more than 45 smaller structures. One dilapidated structure was razed a few weeks back because it was seen as a safety hazard.
"This announcement is 18 years in the making and I am thrilled to finally see it come to fruition," U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro said. "All the community groups, as well as the town of Stratford, should be commended for their dogged efforts to finding a solution. I look forward to seeing the Army Engine Plant site redeveloped and become a vibrant economic driver for the area."
A PSR spokesman said the redevelopment will include "civic, live, work and play elements" in a prepared statement.
On the face of it, the plant is on prime real estate. Situated at the mouth of the Housatonic River, it offers expansive views of the river, the marsh known as the Charles E. Wheeler Wildlife Area, and Long Island Sound. It has 4,512 feet of shoreline and a 3,115 feet of frontage along Main Street.
But manufacturing there, which dates to the 1920s, left a legacy of spilled lubricants, hydraulic fluids, paints, metal shavings, fuels, thinners and other toxic waste. It's estimated the cost of cleaning up the mess will easily run into the millions of dollars, officials said.
In August 2011, the General Services Administration announced that the U.S. government would sell the property to a developer for free, the catch being that whoever buys it would have to spend millions of dollars cleaning it up. The plant had been owned by the Army until now.
In 2008, the GSA tried to sell the Army plant in an online auction. The move resulted in a $9.6 million plan to transform the site into a campus of multimedia production studios called, "Hollywood East." But investors couldn't secure enough funding, and the deal fell apart.
As recently as 1985, the plant employed 4,300 workers, managers and support staff who produced the AGT1500 turbine engine for the Army's state-of-the-art Abrams M1 tank. That was the last big-ticket contract for the plant; beginning in 1995, production was shifted to Honeywell's Anniston, Ala., facility.
By 1993, the payroll had shrunk to about 2,600 workers as orders for the AGT1500 fell from 100 a month to 300 a year. In 1994, after Textron sold the Lycoming Turbine Engine Division to AlliedSignal, the pace of the layoffs accelerated and the last of the workers, by then a skeleton crew, closed the doors for good in 1998.
The plant was called a number of different names: Avco-Lycoming, Lycoming-Textron, Avco Lycoming-Textron and just simply "the Avco plant." Textron Inc., based in Providence, R.I., took over Avco in January 1985 for $1.4 billion.
The plant's history dates to 1929 when it was known as the Sikorsky Aero Engineering Corp. Back then, Sikorsky was a builder of fixed-wing seaplanes such as the S-42 Clipper.
Sikorsky merged with Chance-Vought in 1938 and, under its United Aircraft (now United Technologies) parent, produced a number of different aircraft for the military, including the storied F4U Corsair.
The freshly minted Corsairs were wheeled across Main Street to what is now Sikorsky Memorial Airport, from where they would be flown to Navy bases -- the plane was primarily used by the Navy and Marines, as well as the Royal Air Force -- before being sent off to the Pacific Theater.
The Corsair, which was well known for its 11:1 kill ratio, was later named the "Official Aircraft of the State of Connecticut."
During the Vietnam War, the Avco plant kept three shifts busy building the T53 "folded" turboshaft engine, which powered just about every Bell UH-1 "Huey" Iroquois helicopter, the most memorable aircraft of that era.
"There's a lot of history in that plant," King said.