As published in the Record Journal Thursday July 19, 2012
By Laurie Rich Salerno
WALLINGFORD — The future of the former American Legion building is again unknown.
On Tuesday, the Town Attorney’s Office received a letter from a lawyer for Jeanine Connelly saying she would not proceed with the purchase of the town-owned building at 41 S. Main St., next to Town Hall. The letter from Jim Loughlin cited “circumstances arising unexpectedly,” saying Connelly had lost an investor and that “a family member can no longer work as a partner in the bed and breakfast project.” Connelly did not answer phone calls Wednesday. Loughlin said all the information he could provide was in the letter he sent.
Connelly’s bid of $125,000 for the late 19th century structure was approved last November by the Town Council, after she submitted plans to turn the long-vacant building into a six-to-eight-room bed and breakfast. The agreement also said she would spend an additional $191,600 renovating the building. Connelly, a respiratory therapist, planned to call the establishment the Hitching Post Inn.
Councilors and town officials were disappointed, as this is the second time a deal for the building has fallen through in less than a year.
“I’m greatly disappointed,” said Republican Town Councilor John LeTourneau. “I’m confident that somebody else will come forward and save this building. It’ll endure this, too. This is just a bump in the road.”
LeTourneau is a member of the Historic Preservation Commission, which, along with the state Attorney General’s Office, spent more than a decade fighting the town over demolishing the building. A New Haven Superior Court Judge ruled in February 2011 that the town could not raze the building, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1993.
The town paid $190,000 for the American Legion building in a foreclosure auction in 1995 with the intent of demolishing it, making way for possible future expansion and parking for Town Hall.
Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr., who has long sought to raze the building, said he wasn’t entirely surprised that the deal fell through, considering the state of the economy. He said he doesn’t believe town money should be spent on the building, and he wouldn’t consider using it as a satellite building, as such buildings are costly to maintain.
Dickinson said the issue would return to the council, which would have to decide the next step.
“We start from square one for the third time,” Republican Councilor Craig Fishbein said Wednesday.
In November, Connelly’s bid beat out that of resident Donald Ahern, who was interested in turning the building into apartments. That was the second bidding process held in 2011, after local businessman Richard Termini withdrew his already approved bid last October. He would have converted the building into apartments and offices. A phone message left for Ahern Wednesday afternoon was not returned.
Fishbein said he thought the council’s decision was made too hastily last fall. He wanted to postpone the vote until the bidders at the meeting could make more thorough presentations.
“I asked for time for the applicants to get their ducks in a row so that we could do this the proper way the first time,” Fishbein said, adding that he was not supported.
Local architect Steven Lazarus was hired by Connelly to restore and redesign the building, and has been working since December on the project. He said the plans were nearly done.
“I wish that Jeanine could straighten things out with investors and I could come back. If not her, I would love to see someone else come over,” Lazarus said, and added he would be paid for much of the work.
He said Connelly had made a major effort to restore the building — hiring a consultant to advise on preservation issues, including restoration tax credits for anyone who uses the plans and builds.
“If a careful restoration were done, it could be a beautiful building,” Lazarus said.
Wallingford Historic Trust President Jerry Farrell Jr. said the American Legion building was particularly important because it lined the town’s historic parade ground along with Town Hall and other historic structures.
“If it got knocked down it’s a gaping view to the parking lot behind. We always argued that it would be like knocking someone’s two front teeth out — they would still be able to chew, but it’s not going to look nice,” Farrell said. “Maybe the third time will be a charm.”