Cyr: Hamden-Quinnipiac relationship is ‘adversarial’ as a nontaxable ‘when it shouldn’t be’

Chatwan Mongkol, News Editor

As Quinnipiac University’s expansion plan will create more non-taxable properties in town, Hamden Democratic mayoral candidate Peter Cyr hopes to partner with the university as mayor to find constructive solutions for hand-in-hand growth. He also said the state government should get involved to lessen the town’s financial burden.

The Chronicle interviewed Cyr on July 21, about his race and his plans for Hamden-Quinnipiac relations if he wins the mayoral office. His responses below were condensed and edited for clarity and grammatical purposes.

Photo contributed by Peter Cyr

As a political newcomer, how do you look at the town’s relationship with Quinnipiac?

I would say it’s kind of adversarial at times. I think you have neighborhood people that really don’t want Quinnipiac expanding, but I don’t think they’re looking at the totality in the best interest of our town. Quinnipiac is our No.1 employer, students come here, and they spend money. Like if you’ve noticed the Corner Deli moved from where the Town Hall is over to Whitney Avenue closer to Quinnipiac because they’re going to make more money there. Quinnipiac students are the economic engine of our town. We need to lean into that.

But the problem is when the state doesn’t hold up their end of the bargain, it makes it really hard for me, if I’m the mayor, to OK any increases in my town. If you pretty much line up the most diverse towns in Connecticut and you line up the most non-taxable properties in those towns, Hamden is going to be placed directly correlated and that’s from a whole host of things, socioeconomic things and all that. 

But it’s a diversity problem. Hamden is the most diverse town in the region, pretty much, when you look at Cheshire, Wallingford, Bethany and Woodbridge. Quinnipiac is a huge employer for those towns too. They all get the same amenities that Hamden gets, but Hamden is the only town paying for it. 

So that’s sort of an adversarial relationship when it shouldn’t be. Quinnipiac people are a regional asset so that’s why we need the state to come in and hold up their end of the bargain. Now they’ve committed to funding the payment in lieu of local property taxes (PILOT) program for two years at about a 60% threshold. I frankly don’t think that’s good enough. I think they need to make it 80-100% and we need to make this a mandatory annual line item in the budget, not an optional one because we got so much money from the federal government. They pretty much doubled our state budget, so then making that commitment now really doesn’t say anything. People say “where do your commitments lie?” It’s how you budget. Well, when you get a whole windfall from the federal government, it’s easy to do that, it’s easy to sort of throw money this way. 

I think the 2022 election for governor is going to be a referendum on equity for Gov. Ned Lamont. How much did you do for the communities that put you in there? And Hamden is one of those communities, and we need to leverage our political power here and let the state know that they need to make the PILOT funding mandatory because that’s the best way we have a good relationship with Quinnipiac. 

I love Quinnipiac. I don’t see Quinnipiac as a problem in our town, I think Quinnipiac is the best asset that’s going to make us a vibeable town for the next hundred years. But that being said the state is such an important part in that equation, and if they’re not there to hold up their end of the bargain and makes it really tough to expand and allow expansions because frankly, it’s a failing business model in Connecticut. 

If you cannot take it up on the tax roll, there’s no incentive for us to do that. We have to keep that in mind when we talk about Quinnipiac expansion, so how can more of the other communities shoulder that burden so it’s not just put on Hamden, which happens to be the most diverse community.

As a mayor, how would you enhance the town’s working relationship with Quinnipiac, and how could the university contribute to that?

Back to the PILOT program, a lot of town people you’ll find will think the answer to solving our relationship is to tax Quinnipiac. They need to pay us money because they’re not being taxed but you’re using our police force, town services and etc. I actually think that’s the wrong approach, you go back to the 1800s, and the statute that makes Quinnipiac nontaxable has been upheld in the Supreme Court by former Chief Justice John Marshall. So that is not going to stand, you’re never going to get money from Quinnipiac.

The easiest leverage is the state. That’s our approach. We should do that, and we should not be asking Quinnipiac for money. What I would like to see Quinnipiac partner with us on is to do things. Hamden could be an experiment lab for Quinnipiac to use the town to help enrich students’ studies in a way.

Yale University does this project with New Haven. It’s called the Urban Renewal Initiative and what they do is basically the Yale School of Forestry plants trees around the city and in urban areas to help beautify. 

Another thing I was thinking about is like the tennis courts, if we’re going to get those tennis courts with the lights in, can Quinnipiac be a good partner and maybe have a clinic with a high school to help get more diverse kids into the tennis programs? How are we working so that our relationship is not completely transactional, like Quinnipiac should be giving us $10 million a year, sure, you could yell to the moon about that, but it’s not going to go anywhere.

I want to be a productive partner and say “how do we augment your studies, what are you trying to expand on as a university and how could the town help you?” I think if we come with that approach and we come with the other aspects of “OK, if Quinnipiac is going to expand, we need to have the state in these negotiations as well,” I think we could find a little more common ground because I do, frankly, think the local rhetoric toward the university kind of gets blown out of proportion. It is not strategic.

I think when we think of how Quinnipiac can help us, we have to be specific, and we have to be specific in the sense that we need to augment what students are studying and we should be participating in that. On the last note there I would definitely like a better Hamden High School to Quinnipiac pipeline, whether that be a diversity program or something like that. How are we getting kids from the community to engage with this private university that is taking over a lot of our town and that could be used to increase tax bases?

Those are the things I think about. I’m not going to sit there and be like “you owe us $10 million,” that’s not a good negotiating point to start from. Yes, there is that problem, but what are we doing? How else are we interacting? I think of it as like symbiotic relationship. How do we live together in this environment and how do we both use each other, both the town and the university, to make our environment better? Those are sort of my approach. I think it’s a little more low-key. I think it’s a pro-Quinnipiac approach too because I’m solution-oriented, and I know that sitting there and just being a stalwart about Quinnipiac not paying property taxes is not a constructive solution, so I want to find constructive solutions so that the university and the town can work together.

Photo contributed by Peter Cyr

Hamden is not exactly a college town as students have to go out to North Haven or New Haven for entertainment. As a mayor, do you have any plan to transform Hamden into a college town?

I think it is an important topic. I think an asset of Hamden is the proximity to New Haven  Downtown. They have a thriving downtown. However we can help connect Quinnipiac students there, that’s a BOOM for us. If we could develop more along Whitney Avenue and things like that for students, I would love to see that because, frankly, we need more commercial properties on our tax roll.

The thing that makes it hard, though, to do it in Hamden is frankly the high taxes. That is the root of it, the pilot problem is the structural root there. If you’re looking to open a bar, it makes a lot more sense to do it in North Haven than in Hamden because the taxes there are almost half. So in order to help start to develop, we need to fix our structural problem and I’ll keep coming back to that because, like I said, I want Quinnipiac to be a partner with our town. I love the university. I think it’s our best asset but like in order for us to get to a competitive place, we need the money from the state annually to help lessen the tax burdens, so we could develop and it’d be more attractive to businesses. 

When I think of developing into a college town, yes, you have to go through Planning and Zoning, which I would totally advocate for, but first, you need to have an attractive vibeable town for businesses to come to. And if the only things are the students and its high taxes, it’s going to be hard to run a business, so we need to work on all those things in Hamden together.

You said you wanted to get endorsement from the town’s stakeholders, how do you plan to get one from Quinnipiac? (In a response to the Hamden Democratic Town Committee candidate questionnaire about how the candidate would engage and receive input from the town’s stakeholders, including Quinnipiac, Cyr said “I want to earn the endorsement of all of those listed above, and that starts by building relationships and reaching out which I intend to do in the coming weeks.”)

I’m not sure exactly which question you’re referring to. I would love to get an endorsement from Quinnipiac whether it be the president or something. I’m sure they’re going to stay out of the race for political reasons.

But I’ve been really active in trying to get students connected to the town. A lot of people are from New York or New Jersey, but when I think of local politics, the decisions that the local town makes are going to affect students so much. 

I actually saw The Chronicle’s article on the tennis courts, a perfect example. Quinnipiac students are not politically active in our town. They are probably registered at their homes. So when the town makes these decisions, they’re not really weighing what students think because they’re not voting, they’re not there at the meeting. I know they had a good grassroots response to this to try to get it through. But local planning and zoning boards don’t want to approve anything that’s like NIMBYism at its best. This is like the perfect example.

As I said, it’s hard to get an endorsement per se, but I want to engage students, I want students to be registered here because, frankly, you live here nine months out of the year. It’s important you’re engaged because if you’re not registered to vote here and you go submit something to the town council, they’re not really gonna listen to you. That’s just how politics works, they take their constituents first.

What I’m going to try to do through my campaign is get young people involved like students from Quinnipiac and Southern Connecticut State University (SCSU). I’ve been endorsed by the SCSU Democrats. I’m pending an endorsement from Quinnipiac Democrats. That’s sort of where I want to brand myself. 

I think I speak to them best. I think I have the most useful ideas that fit in with the digital economy so I’m going to be courting those endorsements again. I’m not sure exactly what you’re referring back to but I sort of see it as being a political representation problem for students and that’s something I want to work on my campaign because students are probably not registered to vote here, but for everybody that does, you’re going to have a say and when you submit testimony to a board it’s going to be that much more powerful.

Are you planning to campaign on campus?

Yes, definitely. GOTV — get out to vote — starts Sept. 1 for me. There’ll be two weeks before the primaries on Sept. 14. So yes, you will probably see me on campus.