Stratford Snafu

The hotshots who flew into battle in gull-winged Corsairs built along the bank of the Housatonic River had a word for it. So did the tank jockeys who fired up engines made in the same sprawling complex decades later.

That word is "snafu."

As in: Situation Normal, All Fucked Up.

The federal government is once again trying to find someone — anyone — willing to buy the 1.75 million-square-foot industrial dinosaur that sits between Sikorsky Memorial Airport and the river. The U.S. Army, owner of this monster monument to aviation and military history, has been hoping to unload it ever since the plant was shut down in 1998.

They tried to give it to the town of Stratford, but that idea crashed and burned. They tried an online auction and got a $9.6 million bid from some guys who wanted to turn the place into a "Hollywood East" studio. The deal imploded and one of those would-be movie moguls was later indicted in a massive real-estate scam.

Last year, a different developer unveiled his vision for a $1 billion "destination resort" on the site, complete with a "waterfront village" filled with hotels, restaurants, a spa and marinas. That one went down the toilet, too, flushed away by the immense cost of cleaning up more than 70 years of industrial contamination.

Even the Army's attempt to transfer a single acre of the land, to allow safety improvements to the airport runway across the street, has been tangled up for years in legal and political warfare between Stratford and Bridgeport. The only group that's doing something useful with a small portion of the old factory is the Connecticut Air and Space Center, a volunteer organization struggling to create a museum to preserve some of the site's incredible history. And they have absolutely no idea if they'll still be there a year from now.

Before 1927, the place was nothing more than farmland along the river. Then aviation pioneer Igor Sikorsky arrived and began inventing and creating flying boats and helicopters and all sorts of record-setting aircraft. At the peak of World War II, the factory was cranking out a fully built F4U Corsair every 80 minutes, eventually producing more than 7,800 of the deadly fighters. Later, the operation was converted to produce tank engines, including those used in the M1A1 Abrams.

The center was the idea of former state Sen. George L. "Doc" Gunther, a Stratford institution who convinced Army officials in 1998 to allow the group to use three of the buildings at what is still technically called the "Stratford Army Engine Plant."

Today, Gunther's brainchild is a fully functioning aviation restoration operation. The center held its first "open house" last weekend to show off some of the historic aircraft its volunteers have been working to save. Those include a Corsair that will eventually be returned to Sikorsky Memorial Airport, helicopters used in the Korean War, jet trainers and the last helicopter Igor Sikorsky ever worked on.

The group's lease from the Army runs out at the end of this October.

Dick Evans, executive director of the center for the past 12 years, says the group is holding its collective breath, waiting to find out if it can stay. "We've been doing that for 14 years," he adds.

Gunther and others say the center's organizers had hoped the Army would offer them a permanent lease, but that hasn't happened yet.

Except for the still-disputed one acre of land it wants to give for the airport, the Army has resisted all requests to break up the massive complex into different parcels, according to Stratford Mayor John Harkins.

He argues that dividing the huge complex into pieces, with one section to go to the center and others to be used for different types of development, is the only intelligent way to deal with what's become a federal white elephant.

The underlying problem is pollution.

Pollution from Sikorsky's work in the 1920s and '30s when no one knew or cared much about industrial damage to the environment. Pollution from the frantic efforts to churn out fighters during the 1940s when industrial contamination concerns took a back seat to the war effort. Pollution from the decades before environmental protection laws were finally enacted.

"They didn't know any better," says Bob Meyer, a project engineer with Ferguson Williams, the company hired by the Army to maintain the vast complex.

Meyer is one of the experts who gives every visitor a required "safety briefing" before they're allowed on the property. The reason is the lung-destroying asbestos that was used to insulate the factory's pipes; and cancer-causing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) used massive transformers; lead paint, applied decades before people were aware of the danger; hexavalent chrome, a toxic metal treatment that is still present in one small portion of the factory; and mercury, used in the thousands of old fluorescent lights throughout the complex.

A good deal of the old contamination has been cleaned up, Meyer says. The Army shipped out three tractor-trailer loads of PCBs, but there's more that needs to be removed. Exactly how much hazardous industrial pollution remains and what it would cost to remove it is uncertain.

Meyer says the extent of the cleanup would depend on what the place was going to be used for in the future. He's heard one estimate that completely eliminating all pollution from the property, which might need to be done if you wanted to build residential housing and stuff like playgrounds, could cost $200 million.

If the property was used once again for industrial production, the price tag might only be in the range of $10 million to $20 million, according to Gunther.

The issue of who would pay is the one gigantic sticking point.

"The Army is trying to take the plant, sell it to somebody and have them clean up the mess," says the 91-year-old Gunther. "They're the ones who polluted it!"

The environmental angle wasn't the only reason Stratford never accepted the Army's offer. There was also the town's internal squabbling over what to do with the site if it was ever acquired, which went on so long the Army finally gave up. In 2007, after 11 years of waiting, the feds decided to sell the damned thing.

Harkins says he is now urging Connecticut's congressional delegation to apply some pressure on the Army to get the site cleaned up and developed.

Gunther says good luck.

"They talk about it, but they won't take action, and that's what pisses me off."

ghladky@newhavenadvocate.com