Saturday, March 08, 2008

For Rowland, Second Chance of a Lifetime


HE’S BACK John G. Rowland on the job as a Waterbury [Connecticut] official.
Published: February 24, 2008

THEY say there are no second acts in American life. They also say that you can’t go home again.

You probably don’t want to say either of those things around John G. Rowland, the former three-term governor of Connecticut who is trying to resurrect his career as the economic development coordinator for Waterbury, the city where he was born.

Mr. Rowland was hired for the job by Mayor Michael J. Jarjura, an appointment that didn’t make everybody happy. But more on that later.

For Mr. Rowland, 50, who assumed his new position on Feb. 1, the challenge is to rehabilitate his home city — and thus redeem himself. Mr. Rowland resigned his governorship in the face of a corruption investigation in 2004, pleaded guilty to one charge and spent 10 months in a federal correctional institution.

On a bitterly cold February morning, as he moved about his hometown, alternately walking or driving his Chevrolet Impala, the former governor expounded on his vision for the city. He stopped and chatted with at least 25 people over a three-hour period, from security guards and nuns to artists and community organizers to old friends and neighbors. He knew all of their names, and they knew his.

If there was a cloud hovering over his head, you would never know it. For a politician who was in a federal prison only a year ago, Mr. Rowland is an amazingly hopeful kind of a guy.

“It’s good to be home,” he said after exchanging bon mots with a police officer in front of the Palace Theater on Main Street. “He was two years behind me in school,” he added, referring to Holy Cross High School.

“This whole area, Main Street, was the pits of the city,” he continued. “You can’t believe how bad it was. Everything was vacant.”

Now a regional branch of the University of Connecticut sits on the former site of a decrepit department store. Across the street is the beautifully restored theater, a former vaudeville house, with its grand lobby, ornate domed ceiling and plush orchestra seats.

“My legacy as governor was UConn and the cities,” Mr. Rowland said. “This is my passion. When I was governor, I would call Waterbury the center of the universe.” During his two-plus terms as governor, investment in the University of Connecticut exceeded $2 billion. And restoring downtown theaters to their old splendor was a special interest of his administration.

“The idea is to get people downtown,” he said. For that you need something for them to come to, things to do. He cited a need for more restaurants. “My vision is to have an ESPN Zone in downtown Waterbury,” he said, referring to the national chain of sports bars. He would also like to see apartments and condominiums lining the blighted Naugatuck riverfront.

It may not be so easy. Like many industrial towns in the Central Naugatuck Valley that runs along Route 8, Waterbury, once known as the Brass City, has found itself caught in a long, downward economic spiral. The last brass factory closed in the 1970s. Waterbury remains a town of broken windows — block after block of red brick buildings, begrimed by time.

Here and there you see aimless young men in hoodies nonchalanting it on street corners. Waterbury has long been perceived as a dangerous place.

“The reality is that it’s safe,” Mr. Rowland said. “The problem is that perception is reality.”

Serious crimes are down to their lowest level since 1980, according to the Waterbury Police Department, with sharp declines in homicide and rape. (There were five homicides in 2007, in a city of about 107,000.)

Even though it has millions of square feet of factory space — in the sort of unused structures that artists, design firms and dot-com entrepreneurs have transformed throughout the Northeast — much of the soil around them has been contaminated, from the effluvia of generations of brass production, metal plating and other industrial uses.

“The folks you are going to get to live downtown are artist types,” Mr. Rowland said, but “the investment cost of bringing the old loft buildings up to code can be high.” He is working on expediting brownfield projects, an Environmental Protection Agency program that provides seed money for cleanup and reuse.

“It’s a work in progress,” Mr. Rowland said. “We’re hoping to get $75 million statewide freed up for remediation.”

On the plus side, Mr. Rowland notes, is Waterbury’s accessibility. The city sits at the junction of Routes 8 and 84 — 40 minutes from New Haven and Hartford, an hour and a half from New York. A prime area for development of warehouse-distribution businesses, Mr. Rowland said, is Freight Street, a kind of chain-link-fence no-man’s land right at the junction of Routes 8 and 84.

Waterbury also has a large pool of skilled and unskilled workers. The downtown area has been designated as an Information Technology Zone, with high-speed hookups. Real estate prices, both residential and commercial, are very affordable compared with, say, Stamford or lower Fairfield County.

After two weeks on the job, Mr. Rowland said he is getting 100 phone calls a week, many from developers wanting to buy in while the market is low. Unlike his days as governor, where he wielded a huge checkbook, he now has to rely on his skills at bringing people together and making things happen.

Mr. Rowland is being paid $95,000 in his new position, and editorialists around the state have been howling. Some have written that Waterbury is the last place on earth he should be working. However, others say that a Democrat in similar circumstances would be appearing on “Oprah.”

“It is not about the money,” said Mr. Rowland, a Republican appointed to the job by a Democratic mayor. “It’s the public service aspect. Absolutely, I think it has qualities of redemption. The city gets a second chance. I get a second chance.”

E-mail: conn@nytimes.com


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