Gregory retires from city after 21 years of overseeing city progress

Community and Economic Development Director Robert Gregory oversaw an era of change in Milford.

His office was involved in one way or another in helping to turn an old sewage plant into a city marina, transforming blighted areas into now prospering, attractive parts of the city, and creating new developments, like Lowes, where Milford Jai-Alai once stood.

Gregory, the man who coined the phrase, “Milford, a small city with a big heart,” which is now the city’s motto, retired last week after 21 years in the Milford office.

Before taking the city job, Gregory was director of the Milford Chamber of Commerce for 19 years. That’s how he had the business connections and the knowledge of Milford’s economic picture that made him right for the community and economic development job when it became open.

When he stepped into the post, he discovered a part of the job that really inspired him, and that was grant writing. Gregory got a crash course in helping city residents by securing government grants, because a month after he took the job, Storm Beth hit, and he was called on to start helping the city and its residents repair from storm damage.

“The storm hit on a Friday, and Mayor Fred [Lisman} called me on a Sunday and said, ‘You want to go for a little drive’?”

He, the mayor and several other officials hopped in a four-wheel drive and drove through the Point Beach area and other parts of the city hardest hit. After that drive, he got involved in a government-funded house elevation program at Point Beach.

Ironically, storms bookended his career with the city. His last piece of work, before packing up his office last week, was to process a thick government application document for a homeowner seeking to elevate a home after Tropical Storm Irene and Hurricane Sandy. Those storms were much more devastating than Beth, he noted.

Gregory’s job was multi-faceted. He worked with residents facilitating these and other grants. He helped steer community block grants to parts of the city that needed repair. He also served as a liaison between the city and business owners and developers when big development questions and issues arose.

Gregory credits former Speaker of the House James Amann and former State Sen. Win Smith with securing funds over the years that paid for a lot of improvements, from the boardwalk that runs from Walnut Beach to Silver Sands, to various Devon and Walnut Beach streetscape improvements. But his office played its part, primarily in terms of fund applications and communication with government agencies.

His office also handled the processing, communicating and paperwork that landed the city funds to turn an old sewage treatment plant downtown into what is now the Head of the Harbor and the Lisman Landing marina.

He was in the mix when Kingdom Life Christian Church wanted to buy land on Old Gate Lane and use it for a church. The city balked at the idea because the huge tract of land would have come off the tax rolls. So the city bought the old jai-alai property and found a developer to construct the Lowes development that is there today.

“A variety of ideas came in, including putting a train station there, and most of them involved some type of housing,” Gregory said. “But Mayor Jim [Richetelli] didn’t want housing.”

The city settled on Ceruzzi Properties, a development firm it had worked with successfully to transform the Ryder Mobile Park and then move the Ryder residents to a new site. Milford Probate Judge Beverly Streit-Kefalas and attorney Charles Needle were the primary movers and shakers involved in arranging a solution for the Ryder residents, Gregory said, but his office was involved “in tangential ways.”

“Usually my job is like a marriage broker,” Gregory said, “a matchmaker because I try to get businesses and match them with the property we have.”

Over the years, the business landscape has changed as much as parts of the city. Instead of IBM and BIC dominating the business community, there are smaller companies that moved in to take their place. Subway has grown dramatically, and Smith Craft Builders, once the biggest name downtown creating housing and the Schooner Wharf Development, has broken up and sold most of its holdings.

But Smith Craft left its mark, Gregory said, pointing out that the 1992 Plan of Conservation and Development called for more housing downtown, and Smith Craft ushered that in. “And it’s upscale, attractive housing,” Gregory said.

Gregory said his brother is a traditionalist, and the two sometimes talk about preservation versus redevelopment. The two have different ideas, he said.

But while Gregory has helped usher in change in Milford, he said he’s also been involved in seeking open space grants to help keep Milford’s undeveloped land as it is.

Leaving all this is a little scary, Gregory admitted. He expects he will continue to be involved in some Milford projects as a volunteer, and may even pick up part time work. He’s also looking forward to gardening, birding and going to the theater with his wife, Elinor, who retired several years ago from her job as an administrative assistant in the mayor’s office.

Friends and co-workers celebrated Gregory’s retirement last week at the Parsons Complex, and Mayor Ben Blake issued a proclamation in his honor. A replacement has not yet been hired, but the application period closed last week.