Suzanne Hopgood was walking through the Connecticut Convention Center with Michael Freimuth, explaining to me why Freimuth was picked from 350 applicants to run the new Capital Region Development Authority.
The authority's board, headed by Hopgood, needed a person ready to roll quickly, not just with broad experience in project management but with connections and the hands-on style to make it happen. There are decisions awaiting action immediately.
"It's the relationships in the state and the...."
Just then, she was cut off by Freimuth greeting an old colleague, an exhibitor at that day's conference on urban planning, a man Freimuth hadn't seen in years.
"Hey, how are you doing?"
No, Freimuth told the exhibitor, Wayne Cobleigh of GZA GeoEnvironmental Inc. of Glastonbury, he was not still in New Rochelle. He just got a new job in Hartford. Certainly, he'll be in touch.
"This is typical," Hopgood said as the two men connected Friday.
Next Monday, Freimuth joins CRDA, the agency created a year ago by the legislature to replace the old Capital City Economic Development Authority, from his post as development chief in New Rochelle, N.Y.
His Connecticut creds are stellar, as he grew up in the Southington area and worked for seven years in the city of Stamford — in the next office from a fellow by the name of Malloy, who became his friend.
Freimuth, 57, a Fairfield resident with two grown children and two still in school, makes no apology for his connection with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who was Freimuth's boss as the Stamford mayor. "Right now the governor is in position to help this region and this agency," Freimuth said.
That's good, since the authority has a complex charge, broadly speaking to prod economic activity in the capital area. The agency, with a staff of 6 1/2, must take facilities that have already been built — the convention center, the XL Center and football stadium at Rentschler Field — and make the most of them for the region with events and nearby development.
The authority is also molding itself as the go-to development expert in the capital region, for all nearby towns. "We're basically saying, 'If a project comes your way, a real estate project that requires strong expertise in construction, underwriting, assessment...this agency is available to you'," Freimuth said.
And the authority is hoping to add 2,000 new housing units, chiefly in Hartford and East Hartford — a sensitive task at a time when there is demand for small, upscale urban apartments, but also an overall slump in home prices. That is the main urgent goal that Hopgood was talking about, and the authority has $60 million to work with, from the state.
It's a big set of goals, fitting, we might think, for someone who sees himself as a visionary. But ask Freimuth about his personal style and he's clear: "I'm a detail guy. I'm a trench guy," he said. "I like to walk away and smell the Sheetrock."
He continues, "It's an awful term, I hate to call myself it, but I'm an implementer," Freimuth said. "I take the idea and put it into bricks and mortar."
"That's what we wanted," said Hopgood, a hotel industry consultant who has run several companies and a devoted downtown dweller.
Don't let them fool you. Freimuth is hardly the nebbish-like Bartelby the Scrivener in person. He's comfortable using phrases like "sense of place," and he's eager to build collaborations, especially with the city of Hartford and the town of East Hartford.
"We will never do anything that they don't know about," said Hopgood.
That's a big difference from the old CCEDA: collaboration and openness from CRDA, or at least the promise of it. Under executive director Jim Abromaitis, the friend of a former governor, CCEDA created what many considered to be a closed and insular culture.
Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra, a member of the CRDA board, is happy about the change. "It's not like we didn't make the right overtures to the right people," Segarra said, speaking of friction with CCEDA.
Segarra, who was active in the search for an executive director, said he's not at all concerned that a local person wasn't picked, and he said Freimuth's history with Malloy was not a factor.
The job is huge. To put just the housing aspect into perspective, under CCEDA, Hartford added 483 "market rate" units, mostly upscale apartments, and renovated or committed to renovate another 483 units, many of which will be low- or moderate-income. Those market rate units include some high-profile projects which took arduous planning, yet apartment development has to be done many times over, and quickly — without flooding the market and without creating a development that sits idle, like Front Street did before the new movie theater moved in.
Speaking of Front Street, there is room for housing on the site, but the commercial buildings were built in such a way that upper floors of housing can't be added in the future. Dumb planning.
CRDA should do a better job converting the vacant Bank of America building at 777 Main Street — as tough a real estate project as Hartford is likely to see. "From A to Z it's a very complicated deal," said Hopgood, who said she's optimistic it can happen. "Our charge is not to take the easy buildings."
Freimuth sees himself not as head of a powerful organization, but as a person who can help put projects together, as he did with the Bridgeport Bluefish stadium in Bridgeport in the early '90s.
That was the era when Cobleigh, the environmental project development manager who ran into Freimuth at the convention center, was working with Freimuth. Cobleigh added a favorable point about his experience with Freimuth back then — a comment that follows pretty much every public appointment — and we hope it's true of Freimuth:
"At the time, working in the cities was difficult because there was so much bureaucracy," Cobleigh said. "he was like a breath of fresh air."
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