Controversial Study of Hartford-Brainard Airport Narrowly Clears Key Committee In State Legislature

April 6, 2022

A controversial bill that would launch a $1.5 million study to examine future uses for Hartford-Brainard Airport — including whether it should be closed and redeveloped — will be up for more debate elsewhere in the General Assembly, after narrowly clearing a key legislative committee Tuesday.

The study, approved in a 27-23 vote by the legislature’s Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee, would examine the costs and weigh the benefits and downsides to closing the century-old airfield. A major focus of the study would examine the extent of soil contamination and what it would cost to clean up.

State Sen. Derek Slap, D- West Hartford, said he supported the study outlined in the bill, but he argued it would then be crucial to make a firm decision on the airport’s future, once the study is completed.

Leaving Brainard in limbo, with talk of closing surfacing periodically, has a “chilling effect” on any potential development at the airfield, Slap said.

“If we’re going to do a study, let’s do it and be done with it and then move on one way or another,” Slap said. “Let’s invest in the airport, make it stronger, make it more successful, leverage everything that it has. Or, if the study comes back and it points in another direction, then we will have many robust conversations about what the best route is going forward.”

The future of the state-owned Brainard on 200 acres in Hartford near the Connecticut River has been debated for decades. The most recent push surfaced last year with the Hartford City Council passing a non-binding resolution supporting redevelopment. Recently, the council pushed for a state study to determine the extent of any contamination.

State Sen. John W. Fonfara, D- Hartford, the committee’s co-chairman and a sponsor of the Brainard bill, has long supported a mixed-use redevelopment of the airport. Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin made redevelopment of Brainard an issue in his first mayoral campaign in 2015. A redevelopment would bring much-needed tax revenue into city coffers and capitalize on prime riverfront land, they have said.

But opponents of closing the airport have lined up in force, forming the Hartford-Brainard Airport Association.

The association and other supporters of the airport argue the city should use Brainard as an amenity to attract new businesses and dismissed the claim the airport is the domain of well-heeled owners of recreational aircraft. They also have raised concerns about the extent of contamination.

Some legislators on the finance committee Tuesday said a 2016 study had already determined that the best use of Brainard would be to keep it open and further invest in it, making another study unnecessary.

Critics have said the proposed study is nothing more than seeking out a different conclusion than the one six years ago.

Rep. Holly Cheeseman, R- East Lyme and ranking member of the finance committee, said closing the airport would take away a valuable job training option from both the city and the greater Hartford area.

Brainard’s flight and aircraft maintenance schools are a critical path to jobs, Cheeseman said.

“I’ve had concerns about this bill all along,” Cheeseman said. “We’ve heard incredibly compelling testimony” from students at the airport “about the importance of this resource.”

In a near 90-minute discussion in the finance committee Tuesday, there were four amendments proposed, none of which succeeded. One focused on who should oversee the study. The bill gives those duties to the Capital Region Development Authority, but there was a push to give those responsibilities to the state Department of Economic and Community Development

Some committee members also pressed to have a provision in the bill removed that restricted further investment from being made in the airport after July 1 by the Connecticut Airport Authority. The authority oversees the operations of the airport.

Rep. Mary M. Mushinsky, D- Wallingford, said the restriction not only covers the term of the study but going forward into the future. The study would be due Jan. 1.

“So even though the study isn’t done yet — and I have no objection, by the way, to studying anything,” Mushinsky said. “But even though the study isn’t done yet, we are putting a clamp and freeze on the airport.”

In Tuesday’s meeting, Fonfara said there is room for further discussion on the text of the bill as it moves through the General Assembly. The vote Tuesday sent the bill the Senate.

Kenneth R. Gosselin can be reached at [email protected].

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