Kleban’s vision: Bring good things to GE property
Updated 7:41 am, Saturday, January 23, 2016
This time, it’s not just business for Al Kleban. This time, it’s personal.
Kleban, who founded his real estate investment/development business, Kleban Properties, several decades ago, took only one night to “sleep on it” before deciding he would try to purchase the 68-acre General Electric campus on Easton Turnpike.
GE officials announced last week that they plan to relocate the corporate giant, which has been headquartered in Fairfield 42 years, to Boston.
“When it was announced they were leaving and it was a fait accompli and there was nothing else that could be done, I realized it was going to have a very serious adverse effect upon the entire community,” the 85-year-old Kleban said, during an interview in his third-floor office at the Brick Walk commercial complex, one of the numerous properties his business owns in town. “Nothing had been done that was effective. Now, it was up to someone who had a business interest in the town.”
That someone was Kleban. “I thought about it during the night,” he said. “The next morning I picked up the phone and called First Selectman Mike Tetreau. I said, ‘Mike, I’ve decided I want to buy the GE property.’ He said, ‘Wow, when can we meet?’ I said, ‘How about 1:30, meet me over at Molto,” a restaurant housed in one of the wings of the Brick Walk.
Can close the deal
Kleban said he doesn’t know if his bid to purchase the GE’s hillside campus off Easton Turnpike will eventually succeed, but he is adamant that Kleban Properties has the financial wherewithal to to acquire the property, and then redevelop the site as a regional technology hub in league with an educational element.
But he said it’s not just about investing in another property to add to the Kleban firm’s portfolio, which in Fairfield alone is valued nearly as much as the GE property. On the town’s 2014 grand list, GE was ranked as the town’s top taxpayer, with property assessed at $76,541,780, with Kleban Properties’ holdings along the Post Road and Black Rock Turnpike ranked second, in a virtual tie, assessed at $76,286,593.
Fairfield is Kleban’s town; it’s where he calls home, and where he raised his family. He didn’t like what he was hearing about GE’s departure. What would this do to tax bills? Property values? “That’s a very important motivation for me,” Kleban said. The Klebans aren’t, he said, “carpetbaggers.” “We’re firmly entrenched in Fairfield,” he said. “This is our headquarters.”
The fear and worries expressed by residents and local business owners hard on the heels of GE’s announcement prompted Kleban to make a quick decision. Those worried calls Kleban said he initially received have changed since Kleban Properties made their own announcement over the wseekend, he said. Now, Kleban said, he’s getting calls from people expressing support for his plan, or asking if he’s looking for a partner in the deal.
“This is going to change things,” he said. “We know we can do it. The floodgates had been opened. Everybody was distressed and worried. I said, ‘I’m going to stop that, I’m going to make the river flow in the opposite direction.’ ”
Kleban’s vision calls for the GE property to be redeveloped into a technology center that houses multiple enterprises, along with an education component such as a stand-alone division of a university.
The developer said his company has engaged a retired GE employee as an advisor in the negotiations. “We’re hoping that he will advise us on some of the facilities,” Kleban said. He added Kleban Properties expects to sign a confidentiality agreement with GE shortly before talks begin in earnest.
“I’m not that foolish to be overly optimistic,” Kleban said “These things take time. Someone could come out of left field, and providing what they would do is better for the town of Fairfield, god bless ’em.”
Kleban and his son, Ken, and grandson, Evan, hold a portfolio of properties in Fairfield that includes many of the Post Road landmarks downtown, which in addition to the Brick Walk complex, include the downtown building — once home to the Fairfield Store — that now houses Fairfield University Bookstore, a Victoria’s Secret store and other retail outlets.
On Black Rock Turnpike, the firm owns several large shopping centers, including properties that house CVS, Trader Joe’s, Old Navy, Gap and ShopRite stores — and the smaller mall that is home to the Pizza Palace, which Kleban first owned in 1956. They also own properties in several other state communities, as well as in Florida, Vermont, Michigan, Louisiana and Mississippi.
State support, local flexibility needed
If Kleban’s bid to buy the GE property is successful, he said the town and state will need to help support the project to ensure its new use is successful
From the state, Kleban said, there will need to be incentives to help lure businesses to lease space in the buildings. “Fairfield County is not in the driver’s seat anymore,” he said of the area business climate, adding that the tax structure in Connecticut makes it difficult to attract, and keep, businesses here.
“I don’t know how that will work out,” Kleban said. “I hope they will be receptive to various contributions, like an abatement of taxes. That’s going to have to be the driver, no matter who buys the property. We’ve got to be able to be competitive.”
The town’s land-use boards, Kleban said, will also need to be flexible. “I hope the zoning commission and the ZBA will make it easier for business opportunities in Fairfield,” he said, recalling the fight that erupted over the proposal for outdoor tables at the Starbucks inside the Fairfield University Bookstore.
“When Borders moved out, that appeared to be a disaster,” Kleban said. His son, Ken, put together a plan to replace the chain bookstore with a new, university-affiliated bookstore and a Starbucks, but the coffee shop’s agreement hinged on permission for sidewalk tables, he said. After the ZBA turned down the initial request, they application was filed with the TPZ, and approval was finally granted.
“If we had lost Starbucks, we would have lost the Fairfield University Bookstore,” Kleban said. “That is symptomatic of an unrealistic approach to the plight of the business community.”
There are few commercial vacancies in town right now, Kleban said, especially in his properties. “But it’s a very, very tough environment,” he said. “All these small entrepreneurs in Fairfield, they’re not making a ton of money. They’re just surviving, it’s a very difficult atmosphere.”
Primary goal is helping hometown
Kleban, who is also a lawyer, said his proposal for the GE property is not an ego trip. “I’ve got enough ego, I don’t need anymore,” he said. “Of course, we would like to make money, that’s our business.” But helping the town he calls home withstand what could be a devastating blow to its tax base is “the primary motivator, by far. The secondary motivation is the business opportunity and, hopefully, not losing a great deal of money.”
And Kleban is someone who fights hard for what he wants. Take the Black Rock Turnpike shopping center that is home now to Old Navy and Gap stores. Longtime residents may remember when the site housed a Steinbach’s store. The department store company was in bankruptcy, and it looked like a discount department store — one Kleban didn’t think was a good fit for Fairfield — was going to take over.
“Now, we owned a rather small piece,” Kleban said of the property. “I had to make sure whoever took over Steinbach’s would improve, and enhance Black Rock Turnpike because as Black Rock Turnpike improved, so did the neighborhood.”
Kleban traveled to Cincinnati and insisted the store go up for auction. It did, and “I outbid everyone and more.” Then, he said, they sat down through the night, securing agreements for Old Navy and Gap to open outlets there.
“We’re capable of doing what we contemplate doing at GE,” Kleban said, “provided we get it.”