David Collins: New London's anointed mega yacht port developer has no relevant experience

·5 min read

Sep. 14—Apparently, New London Mayor Michael Passero is keen on the idea of his city becoming a destination port for mega yachts. Please, hold the snickering.

I know it is a ridiculous fantasy, the kind you might expect the mayor to keep to himself. He evidently envisions lots of rich people, maybe the 1% percent of 1 percenters, directing the captains of their large oceangoing yachts to take them to New London, sort of St. Tropez on the Thames.

So when David Hancock of Long Island recently approached Passero, he says, through a mutual acquaintance, and pitched the idea of developing a dazzling new waterfront for the city with lots of mega yachts, the mayor was all ears.

And, a result, we saw the crazy meeting last week in which the City Council emerged from a long, closed-door executive session and signed an agreement anointing Hancock and his company, Advanced American Engineering, exclusive developer of the city's downtown waterfront.

This is troubling on many levels, especially as an affront to open and transparent government.

Not only did the City Council members meet in private to discuss the concept of rebuilding the city's waterfront public park, but they never even disclosed to constituents that such an enormous project was being considered.

Then they chose someone to bestow exclusive developer status on — for what was then still a secret plan — without creating any competition or seeking requests for proposals.

Then, to really insult the public, they came out of their closed-door session, voted to sign the exclusivity deal with the developer and refused to discuss or even disclose publicly what was being proposed.

It was a breathtaking show of disdain for the public and transparency.

And now, after the city released the plans late last week, the folly of the whole thing is more apparent than ever.

First, there are the preposterous ideas in the developer's proposal, which apparently had the mayor and councilors so dizzy with excitement they forgot they were supposed to be representing the public.

The description of what is being contemplated is incredibly vague, mostly just generic pictures of big yachts and a wacky floating swimming pool and market. But one rendering depicts a new pier running off the existing pedestrian pier of the waterfront park, big enough to berth a cruise ship.

The renderings don't explain how a cruise ship pier could be accommodated in that tight area of the harbor, in the midst of a marina, connected to the pedestrian walkway, on the wrong side of the railroad tracks.

But, after all, the proposal comes from a developer, already in a signed exclusivity deal with the city, who admits he has no experience developing the kind of project he is proposing for New London.

I chatted with the mayor's new development partner this week, and he admitted his company has no experience as a developer and no track record in organizing the kind of mega yacht port being suggested for New London. He said they are partnering with a company that owns a marina on Long Island and has done a lot of commercial and real estate development nationally and would provide financing.

Indeed, the website for Hancock's Advanced American Engineering lists a handful of projects, some with marinas and developments on the water, but the company claims to have done only engineering work on those projects. It is not the principal developer of any of them.

I left messages with offices of all of the projects and none of them called me back. Hancock agreed to ask those past engineering clients to call me with references for him, but none did.

The website lists two offices for Advanced American Engineering. I looked them up, and one is a single-family house in a residential neighborhood in Wilmington, N.C. The other is a "virtual" office in a shared building on Long Island, where tenants pay $130 a month for use of the combined reception phone system and conference rooms.

Hancock said the company has about six employees. I asked where they work and he said, essentially, wherever they are.

The website doesn't list any principals or employees of the company or their resumes. I asked Hancock why his LinkedIn profile shows only his affiliation with Advanced American Engineering, and he said his previous work involved waterfront development and he didn't list any other companies because he's always worked for himself.

Two things especially alarmed me in our conversation.

Hancock told me New London's waterfront park is affiliated with the National Park Service. When I told him it isn't, he insisted city officials told him it is. This is the city's new waterfront developer, who doesn't even know who runs the park he is proposing to dramatically alter.

The other worrisome thing he told me, in answer to my question of what's in this for the city, was about traffic and commerce that would be brought by the yachts. He said there's been no discussion at all about whether or how much rent would be paid. Yikes.

City officials seem to be suggesting there's no harm in giving Hancock a year to develop a plan. What do they have to lose, is the reasoning.

I think they need to look no farther than across the Thames River, where Groton is settling in for the prospects of a long and expensive lawsuit with a developer they didn't vet very well but signed a contract with.

And please don't snicker. This is more sad than funny. New London deserves so much better.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

Editor's Note: The website lists two offices for Advanced American Engineering, one of them a single-family house in a residential neighborhood in Wilmington, N.C. The state was incorrect in an earlier version of this story.

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