Saturday, June 28, 2008


I think I first started hearing Tom Gessler's name a year or two ago. I don't know a lot about him directly, except the "buzz" that he's a New York real estate investor who owns a few properties in downtown Waterbury. The other major downtown property owner is Phil Nargi, who lives in Waterbury and hangs out downtown. While I certainly don't agree with everything Nargi's said and done, at least he's involved in the community. I don't know that I've ever seen Gessler around, and I have no idea where he lives. He has a couple of companies for his investments, but when I try to research them online, it's like they don't exist. Gessler's name appears nowhere in the city assessor's website.

I did a little further digging, and found that Gessler, through the guise of "Leavenworth & West Main, LLC", based in Hamden, is the owner of the former Mattatuck Museum building at 119 West Main Street. Gessler purchased the building many years ago and almost immediately replaced the beautiful wrought iron fence with a chain link fence nailed a board over the front door, effectively defacing the oldest building on the Green. Nothing has been done with the building since then. I can't help but wonder what he did with the original fence. Is it stored on site or did he sell it?

Gessler also owns the property where the city Health Department currently rents space (on a side note: why are city departments renting space? this makes no economic sense at all!). When their lease was about to expire, they naturally started looking for cheaper rent. They found it on Bank Street, in the former Jones Morgan building, which is owned by Phil Nargi. The city agreed to lease office and clinic space from Nargi. When Gessler found out he was losing his tenant, he threw a fit and started complaining to everyone he could. This launched the enormous public debate over the location of the health clinic earlier this year. (Please don't take my chronology as hard fact--this is my second and third hand reconstruction of what happened.) Gessler's supporters insisted that moving the health clinic from Scovill Street to Bank Street would destroy downtown development. Lynnette Letsky-Piombo addressed the Board of Aldermen and said that Gessler is planning to invest $7.5 million in downtown Waterbury, therefore we should do what he wants. This was the most chilling, disturbing thing I had heard in a long time. I know I'm exaggerating here, but how is this different from prostitution? Do whatever he wants, because he says he's going to pay enough money later on?

This past week, the Board of Aldermen finally voted to honor the contract with Nargi for the Health Center to move to Bank Street. In my mind, that debate boiled down to a couple of key ingredients: the vast majority of downtown business owners spoke out in favor of the move; and the city had already entered into an agreement for the new lease. Gessler responded to the BoA vote by throwing a staged tantrum. He claims that the relocation of the Health Clinic to Bank Street makes the Lombard Building, at Exchange Place, a bad investment for him. Therefore, he will no longer continue his negotiations to purchase, renovate and enlarge (with two new floors) that building. Seventy-five downtown merchants believe the relocation will improve business downtown. And, as the Republican-American pointed out, Gessler's negotiations to purchase the Lombard Building were already in jeopardy, given that the building is chock-full of asbestos and other toxins. Sounds to me like he's using the clinic move as an excuse to back out of his deal. Just as well, as far as I'm concerned. Downtown Waterbury is full of empty upper stories. Adding two more floors to the Lombard Building is not what downtown needs.

Gessler doesn't seem to be doing any good for Waterbury. He's defaced a well-loved historic building, attempted to manipulate the proper course of government through sleazy tactics, and there's no indication that he's involved with or cares about the community. Maybe I'm completely wrong about him, but I really have not seen or heard anything about him to make me think that he's worth having in town. Hm. Okay, I take that back. He does seem to hire good property managers. Much better than Sy Management, which is constantly in the news for not maintaining the basic necessities in their buildings. But decent property management doesn't make up for Gessler's low points. Waterbury deserves better.


Peter said...

Steve Sailer summed up the whole developer/municipality relationship in just one sentence.

Waterbury Girl said...

And if the mayor is also a developer...?

blue eyes said...

As reported in the Republican-American Newspaper, Tom Gessler owns many properties in Waterbury: the Sovereign Bank building; a former tire shop on North Elm Street; the former Mattatuck Museum building; the Miller & Peck buildings downtown were purchased in partnership with Belfonti Associates. The Belfonti-Gessler partnership represents one of the largest owners of office buildings in the City of Waterbury. They also own Croft Commons. I’m almost positive there are more.

In regards to the Health Department move, I don’t think Gessler threw a fit when he found out he was losing his tenant. I believe the space will still be occupied to its maximum. If not, a new tenant would jump to that location.

As reported in the Rep-Am, Gessler had meetings with various City leaders. He explained, amongst other things, that he will not go through with the Lombard Building deal if the Health Department moved to Bank Street; how it would affect the downtown “business“ model; and how indeed it would be a bad investment for him. I’m sure the environmental issues of the building could’ve been fixed. In my opinion, if he didn’t care - he wouldn’t have wasted months on meetings, preparing studies, conceptual plans etc. He has also brought other big-time investors to Waterbury who have fallen in love with downtown just like he has.

Downtown needs market rate housing. Right now there are very few available apartments in downtown and they’re all in awful condition. And why don’t we have a directory of available downtown apartments? I hope Nargi goes through with his housing plan. I’m sure the second floor of the Lombard Building will continue remain empty. Walgreens is occupying the first floor; due to move in some time in the future.

I think Gessler acted just like any smart businessman would. Just because he’s the under-the-radar-low-key-behind-the-scenes type, doesn’t mean that he’s not involved. When he’s in town (which is often) you’ll catch him walking the streets of downtown, dining at one of our restaurants or mingling with merchants. Not only does he own (and maintains) properties in Waterbury, but he's also made large anonymous donations to various organizations. And the developer has never asked for government funding.

We can only hope he continues to do business in Waterbury.

By canceling the Lombard Building deal, Gessler did disappoint us. But we also disappointed him. What we need are 10 more progressive-minded developers like Tom Gessler, and 10 less Aldermen who like to play games.

Anonymous said...

Tom Gessler is hardly a "progressive developer". He has (sometimes) made money on pure speculation and other times he has lost money the same way. His companies are always one bank deposit away from bankruptcy and he doesn't give a crap about history.