A year-round, state-of-the-art, hydroponic greenhouse, family restaurant and pub could be one of the next new ventures at Fairfield Hills.
Antonio St Lorenzo, resident and CEO and Founder of Heroes Village, has submitted to a Fairfield Hills Authority subcommittee a draft letter of intent to occupy the sites of Stratford Hall for the restaurant and pub, and the location of Norwalk Hall, which would come down in lieu of a new 80,000-square-foot greenhouse there — an estimated $3.4 million proposal.
Fairfield Hills Authority members on Wednesday received via e-mail the draft letter for discussion at that night’s full FHA meeting. Subcommittee member Ross Carley explained Mr St Lorenzo’s proposal. He also stressed that Mr St Lorenzo hoped for some show of support from the authority “in order for him to activate finances” from his backers. Mr Carley said, “He needed to know there was something tentative,” so investors would free up funding.
After lengthy and at times heated discussion, members moved to reserve for six months the parcels at Norwalk and Stratford Halls for the purpose of negotiating with Heroes Village. In that time window, Chairman James Bernardi said, the authority would “not negotiate with anybody else” for those buildings. The motion allows that Mr St Lorenzo would have that time “to present to the authority his financials and work out a lease agreement.” Renata Adler abstained from voting, while all other members approved the motion.
According to Heroesvillages.com, “Heroes Village is developing Urban Agriculture Centers where our heroic veterans can find employment and Veterans Assistance Centers where they can find a dignified place to re-enter civilian life. Our Urban Agriculture Centers are state of the art, computer climate-controlled greenhouses allowing year-round growing of fresh produce in the Northeast.”
Mr St Lorenzo recently described the vision he has for the two locations on the Fairfield Hills grounds: he sees “a family-friendly restaurant — nonviolent games for children, and a healthy farm-to-table menu.” He anticipates that both locations can provide jobs for residents “and our veterans coming home. I am also trying to take our veterans from killing fields to growing fields.” He believes that veterans and disabled veterans can work in the greenhouse, where he also pictures a year-round in-door farmers market benefiting the community and the farmers.
“We can even train blind veterans on Braille keyboards,” he said. The greenhouse will be computer enabled and will be all hydroponic, he added.
Offering more details to what he hopes to build, he said, “Inside the restaurant will be tomatoes growing and served fresh and picked daily.
“All food will be local grown … with greenhouses on either side for the restaurant,” he said. With the restaurant themed toward younger residents, he said, “I believe children should eat right.” With so much of the town’s vegetables “coming from somewhere else,” Mr St Lorenzo asked, “Why not pick it that day? Families can feel good about enjoying themselves in a safe and friendly environment.”
And downstairs in Stratford Hall he sees an English-style pub with “a healthy bar menu.”
Why does he want to build at Fairfield Hills?
“Moms and dads can get something to eat after a game,” he said, Also, the new restaurant would offer “a nice place to relax.”
He intends to start his project “as soon as I have the OK.”
The anticipated budget is roughly $3.4 million, with investors ready, he said. The costs include necessary demolition of Norwalk Hall.
Director of Economic and Community Development Elizabeth Stocker said, “I like the idea and am very encouraged by it.” The proposal is consistent with the master plan and the zoning on the property, Ms Stocker said. She, along with Land Use Director George Benson, and the Fairfield Hills Authority subcommittee members have already begun discussions with Mr St Lorenzo, and “the next step is to work out terms of a lease,” Ms Stocker said.
A Letter of Intent
The draft letter of intent states: “This greenhouse would create dozens of permanent jobs (in addition to those provided by the restaurant proposed below), primarily for local veterans. The greenhouse would have a small retail farm stand component. A portion of the proceeds of the greenhouse and restaurant will be donated to Sandy Hook Promise.
“Heroes Village will also negotiate a long-term ground lease for the Stratford Hall building for use as a restaurant upstairs and a pub downstairs.
“The Town of Newtown will restore the mechanicals, plumbing and utilities of Stratford Hall and Heroes Village will renovate the building for its intended use.”
The town has not signed or made any formal agreements to Mr St Lorenzo’s letter.
“The increasing use of Fairfield Hills Campus by the public has shown there is a real need for the proper type of eating and pub establishments in keeping with the character of the historic Stratford Hall,” the letter says.
Mr St Lorenzo’s letter proposes Jazzy Lu’s upstairs in Stratford Hall, a non-alcoholic, family-friendly restaurant.
“We will use as much local farm-to-table as possible. As families wait for their food they will be able to play non-violent, internationally themed table games that promote bonding between children and their parents. Jazzy Lu’s will be designed to be a bright and fun environment. Families can feel good about enjoying themselves in a safe, child-friendly environment.”
Heroes Village Pub, downstairs, will offer beer, wine, and a healthy bar menu for adult visitors to Fairfield Hills “who need a respite from the daily grind,” states the letter. “We are working with some highly-skilled local brewers to brew craft beers right on the premises and feel this would be a big attraction for the beer aficionado.”
The pub would have a separate entrance from the restaurant.
The letter concludes: “We hope [the Fairfield Hills Authority] and the Town of Newtown’s stakeholders look favorably on this letter of intent. Once countersigned by you, our architect can begin to create the design aesthetic for your review.”
Mr St Lorenzo also hopes to coordinate with EverWonder, a proposed children’s museum also eying the campus for a future location. He said, “Anyone [who visits his restaurant after the museum] will get a discount.”
As Mr Carley began to discuss Heroes Village concepts and the draft letter of intent the subcommittee had forwarded to the full authority Wednesday for that night’s meeting, Ms Adler quickly made her objections clear. She first suggested that the authority had “foisted responsibilities” to a subcommittee.
Both authority and subcommittee members stressed the need for a body that could meet with people such as Mr St Lorenzo during regular business hours, which the authority is unable to do. She argued that the subcommittee’s meeting minutes “tell us nothing.” She was not pleased to have received the draft letter of intent via e-mail.
“I look at the [letter of intent] — it’s an outrage, it’s crooked, careless, it’s not a letter of intent,” she said. Member Michael Holmes assured her that nothing had been signed.
Pointing out Ms Adler’s adamant opposition to past proposals for the campus, including a headquarters for Claris Construction, a soccer stadium, EverWonder Children’s Museum, and now the Heroes Village greenhouse and restaurants, Mr Bernardi said, “You have made your opinion known — you don’t want anything here. You want a park.” Regarding the campus, Ms Adler replied, “It’s going downhill.”
Mr Bernardi and others reminded her that the authority does not make decisions regarding campus uses. They enforce the master plan for reuse, which states approved Fairfield Hills uses. He also explained that the authority only makes recommendations to the Board of Selectmen. “We are not here to block proposals,” he said.
Trying to hear out Ms Adler, and saying he respected her thoughts, Thomas Connors asked her, “What do you want the campus to be?”
She answered, in part, “a park — it’s a lovely place to walk …” She also feels that proposals for campus reuse should be “high level.”
Stating again that he respected Ms Adler and her intellect, Mr Connors said, “I don’t think we want to argue with you, but we are often going to outnumber you.”
At 3 that afternoon, Ms Adler had sent an e-mail to other authority members regarding the Heroes Village letter of intent, saying it is “in no sense a legitimate proposal.” She was reassured that all concepts in the letter would have to be vetted, Mr Carley said. It was also not an official document with any authority members’ signature.
Mr Holmes also agreed that as far as financing, the subcommittee members have only heard what Mr St. Lorenzo has said, but no discussions of money or terms of lease have been discussed.
Regarding the Heroes Village proposal, she stated in her e-mail: “I have some doubts whether the [authority] is empowered, under law, to address [questions]” that she has raised. She wrote: “I believe these plans require review in a process which includes the people of Newtown.” She added, “We are entrusted with a beautiful, uncluttered campus that belongs to the people of Newtown, fifty years from now, five years from now, now, people are going to ask what we did with that trust.” She hints at one portion of the letter of intent that suggests that the town be required to restore the mechanics, plumbing, etc in Stratford Hall.
Director of Economic and Community Development Elizabeth Stocker said she explained to Mr St Lorenzo that the town would not bear responsibility for some requests in his letter. Ms Adler finished her e-mail, “I formally and emphatically ask that we not decide or consider the letter at this time.”
All committee and subcommittee meetings are noticed in the town clerk’s office and at Newtown-ct.gov, and are open to the public. Any proposal in planning stages must go before committees including Planning and Zoning, the Board of Selectmen, and comply with land use and zoning regulations.