Courtesy of the West Haven City Council

For 10 months, Connecticut’s largest craft brewery was set to open its doors in Fair Haven, a New Haven neighborhood that the city has attempted to revitalize for decades. But last week, the brewery announced that it will instead open in West Haven, drawing mixed reactions in both cities.

New England Brewing Company originally planned to relocate to the River Street lot in Fair Haven. Their decision to move to West Haven has been met with disappointment from New Haven officials who saw this as a step back in their plans to improve economic growth in the city. In West Haven, the mayor is facing criticism from other officials concerned about possible obstruction in the bidding for the Conference Center. 

“This is disappointing, but we wish New England Brewing Company well in West Haven,” Mayor Justin Elicker wrote in a statement to the News. “We were very excited about both proposed projects on River Street, which is why the city has been engaged and supportive. The dynamic that pitted one project against the other was incredibly unfortunate and unproductive.”

NEBCO Original Plan in Fair Haven

In June of 2021, NEBCO announced its commitment to building its 80,000-square-foot facility in the River Street lot in Fair Haven, which was previously used for a Hess oil terminal. The facility would have served as a brewery, tap room and event space, hosting events like weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs and more, generating about 70 local jobs and sponsoring community service initiatives, according to NEBCO’s owner Rob Leonard in a New Haven Economic Development Commission, or NHEDC, meeting held in June.

The plans had been in the making for months. In late 2020, the Eclipse Development Group reached out to New Haven city officials, hoping to purchase the River Street site for NEBCO. Eclipse, NEBCO and the city collaborated in reaching out to gather feedback from the community to discuss and complete a Development and Land Disposition Agreement to submit to the Board of Alders – but this was where the plans began to fall apart, according to NEBCO developers.

Last Monday, NEBCO announced they planned to move the brewery to West Haven, with a set opening date of spring 2022. The decision came after 10 months of planning in Fair Haven that NEBCO developer Doug Gray alleged was “logjammed.”

“We wasted 10 months on River Street,” Gray said in the NHEDC meeting. “It would have been a great site. But things were just log jammed.” Gray told the New Haven Independent that the NHEDC was too slow on helping with the DLDA contract, making plans difficult and inconvenient.

River Street, the area of Fair Haven that was the previous construction site for the brewery, began to undergo the River Street Municipal Development Plan, or MDP,  in 2002 to increase its economic potential. The city government’s website noted that it included efforts to develop waterfront parks, restore historical buildings and establish new facilities with more sustainable design, carving out 25 acres to sell to businesses. New Haven has invested over $10 million into the project, calling for “extensive public improvements” in the area. The new brewery would have been an addition to this effort towards New Haven’s proposed $20 million budget. 

Last month, Armada Brewing, another brewery, competed with developer Jaigantic Studios to open its facilities on River Street and received approval from the NHEDC in a September meeting. Of all the River Street projects, including NEBCO, Armada was the fastest to sign its lease, marking a spurt of new businesses that the city government is allowing to find a new home on River Street.

NEBCO’s owner Rob Leonard wanted the brewery to find a “forever” home, he said in a NHEDC meeting this summer. Their decision came with support from West Haven city officials.

“Even with the disappointment that it did not work out on River Street, we wish New England Brewing all success at their chosen location in West Haven,” City Economic Development Administrator Michael Piscitelli told the News in an email. “As one of Connecticut’s outstanding brands, it was a pleasure to work with Marty on a shared vision for growth and job creation.”

Reaction from West Haven Officials

West Haven posted bidding for Savin Rock Conference Center on Sept. 30, and the Request for Proposal (RFP) closed on Oct. 15. A press conference on NEBCO’s movement to West Haven took place on Nov. 1, the day before Election Day. The proposal is not official until it receives approval from the City Council. A final decision will be made during the public hearing meeting on Nov. 17. 

States and city officials expressed a warm welcome to NEBCO. 

“I’m very excited about this announcement and I think West Haven needed some good news,” West Haven Mayor Nancy Rossi write in a press release. “My plan always was never to sell one of the most beautiful pieces of property West Haven owned, but instead it will be a long-term lease.” 

According to Phil Pappas, Head of the Craft Brewers Association, Connecticut’s brewing industry represents 124 craft breweries, has a $3 billion economic impact in the state, and employs over 18,000 people.

In a press release from West Haven city officials, Marty Juliano, NEBCO’s director of business development, said the new brewery would include a production facility and office space, along with event space and a taproom for up to 1,000 patrons. Juliano said it will also create 75 to 100 jobs. 

“It would provide the city with much needed revenue in the form of a long-term land lease,” State Representative Charlie Ferraro added. “Additionally, a tear down and rebuild will remove a long overdue repair that would have cost our city over a million dollars instead we will get a brand new 52,000 square foot building.”

However, Berry Lee Cohen, Republican Councilman of West Haven and the Rossi’s challenger during last week’s mayoral election, told the News that though he welcomes NEBCO, he found the press conference “ironic and odd.” He called the event a “political stunt” from Rossi. 

Cohen said that the council needs to review all RFPs before any announcement or press release. On Nov. 8 during the West Haven City Council Meeting, the council was informed about the existence of a second $35 million RFP from SPM Hospitality. 

Jeffrey Gordon, the president of Codespoti & Associates, a civil engineering and land-planning business, represented SPM Hospitality during the meeting. Gordon said he has submitted a response on behalf of his client SPM Hospitality to the city’s request for proposal on Oct. 14. After not receiving a response from the government for days, Gordon called staff of the RFP committee and was told they did not submit an RFP. Gordon, however, showed the receipt of their RFP submission during the meeting. 

“I’m until this moment not even confident that the proposal was ever found and reviewed,” said Gordon. 

Cohen told the News that no one on council knew about the second proposal from SPM Hospitality until that meeting. He remained skeptical about whether there were more proposals not presented in front of the council. 

“The mayor and her selection board could give a recommendation.” Cohen said, “but they basically hid one of the requests for proposals… All I care about is whatever proposal is selected, and that everybody gets a fair chance to present their proposals.” 

City Corporation Counsel Lee Tiernan told the New Haven Register that there is an RFP committee that reviews the proposals and recommends one to the City Council, and the brewery plan was the proposal that the committee chose. 

Rossi could not be reached for a comment. 

NEBCO’s brewery is set to open spring 2022 by Labor Day. 

HANNAH QU