RTM Approves $5 Million Gift toward Civic Center Despite Calls to Postpone for Time to Craft a Town Policy on Naming Rights

On Monday night the RTM approved a $5 million gift from the Steven and Alexandra Cohen Foundation to help pay for a new $21 million Eastern Greenwich Civic Center in Old Greenwich.

Per the agreement, the building will be renamed the “Cohen Eastern Greenwich Civic Center.”

RTM committee chairs that took up the resolution gave feedback including concerns about a lack of town policy about naming rights for town buildings.

There were recommendations to postpone the vote until December, to give the Town time to craft a policy.

The Board of Education does have a policy on Naming Facilities, 7551. Adopted in 2019, it says, “The individual for whom a portion of a school building or school grounds is to be named must be shown to have broad-based, long-term impact to the school district community.”

There is also a BOE policy about Gifts and Bequests.

The gift agreement between the Steven and Alexandra Cohen Foundation and the Town stipulates that the $5 million will be paid in four installments starting Feb 25, 2021 with $1,000,000, $1,000,000 on Feb 15, 2021, $1,000,000 on Feb 15, 2024 and $2,000,000 on Feb 15, 2025.

The agreement, which came from the foundation, states, “The Foundation shall not be required to make any installment payments if there is any controversy around the naming of the building in honor of the Cohens that reflects negatively on the Cohens or the Foundation.”

The agreement has no expiration date. Nor does it clarify who approves signage.

Mr. Cohen is one of the country’s most-profitable hedge-fund managers. In 2016 he was prohibited by the US SEC from supervising funds that manage outside money until 2018. Prior to that, in 2013, the hedge fund Mr. Cohen founded, SAC Capital, pleaded guilty to insider trading charges and paid a $1.8 billion penalty.

No one mentioned Mr. Cohen during the RTM meeting.

First Selectman Fred Camillo read the proposed resolution, which specifies that the civic center be named “the Cohen Eastern Greenwich Civic Center.”

Finance Committee
Mr. Basham of the Finance committee, said Joe Siciliano, director of Parks & Rec and assistant town attorney Aamina Ahmad had addressed his committee saying there was precedent to accepting gifts of this nature, including the Bendheim family’s 2001 gift of $2.5 million, which was approximately one third of the cost of the Western Greenwich Civic Center.

The Finance committee voted 11-0-1 to accept the gift from the Cohen Foundation. Mr. Basham said District 8 abstained due to the lack of a formal town process for vetting donors and accepting gifts for town buildings.

Legislative & Rules
Kip Burgweger of Legislative and Rules Committee also said the committee was visited by Parks & Rec director Joe Siciliano and Ms Ahmad and was told the item went back 18 months. He said they were told that early in the process Mr. Siciliano and First Selectman Fred Camillo met with the Cohen foundation and mentioned the precedent set with the Bendheim donation.

“However, the agreement in that case was acknowledged to be less stringent concerning the naming requirements than the naming requirements associated with this item,” Burgweger said.

“It was discussed that while this is a welcome and generous offer of $5 million toward the construction toward the EGCC, the agreement appears to condition the gift on some ambiguous terms,” Burgweger continued.

“Members were concerned about ill defined language in the agreement concerning the right of the donor foundation, that throughout funding upon any push back or negative attention on the naming rights set forth in the agreement, members stated that if the donors are, under the agreement, able to withdraw funding if the town brings their name into disrepute, then a reciprocal clause in favor of the town would be appropriate.”

Further, Burgwegger said, “It was also noted this agreement has no term limit, and thus might be seen as a naming right granted in perpetuity. A suggestion was made that the agreement be should potentially be modified for the naming rights only to extent through the life of the building, or until the occurrence of an event that destroyed or required the reconstruction of the building. It was noted that if funding is withdraw, the town should be able to remove the name. The agreement appears to be silent on that point.”

Burgweger said his committee made and passed a motion to postpone the item until the December meeting. It was passed 9-2-0, with districts 1 and 7 voting no.

Parks & Rec Committee
Kate LoBalbo of the Parks & Rec committee said Mr. Siciliano and assistant town attorney Ms Ahmad spoke to her committee as well, and pointed out there had been other gifts of land and civic buildings in the past, including from from Robert M Bruce and Henry Osborne Havemeyer. She said her committee had been unaware of a motion to postpone.

The Parks & Rec committee’s vote was 8-0-2. District 8 and 6, in which the civic center is located, said that while they did not want to refuse the contribution, they had suggestions for a naming policy in public-private partnerships.

Public Works Committee
Michael Spilo from the Public Works committee said his committee also noted the lack of process in place for naming. Still, he said his committee also noted that buildings had been named on behalf of benefactors in the past.

He mentioned that Julian Curtiss School was named after the former president of the Spalding Goods Co.

In the Public Works committee, a motion to delete the naming provision failed.

He said the item as it appeared on the call was passed 11-0-0.

Other comments

Brian Raney of District 9 said he was in favor of postponing.

“There are some serious concerns about the language in the agreement and without some modification, I cannot support the item as it appears,” he said.

Ms Lobalbo said while her committee was not aware of any motion to postpone, she said, speaking for herself, she favored postponing until December.

Mr. Ozizmir said he was against postponing.

Mr. Camillo encouraged voting against the motion to postpone.

“This has been in the making for decades and for the last year and a half we’ve been working on this. The objections I’ve heard – a morals clause – going forward…. it’s not a bad thing, but this is coming in at the last minute. This is a donor that lives in town and has their name on public buildings.”

“Any town in America would be honored and grateful for something like this,” Camillo added. “A motion to postpone could be taken the wrong way.”

“Using people’s names to show appreciation has long been done,” said Ed Dadakis. “It is very appropriate and quite frankly, we need more generous residents like Steve Cohen. We should all vote in favor of this with gratitude.”

Hector Arzeno urged waiting until there were policies in place.

“The public private partnerships have been on the table for a good amount of time and I’m in favor, but we have plenty of time for everyone to comment and approve a good set of regulations for accepting private donations, participation in public works properties and naming them,” Arzeno said.

“I would like to put the horse before the cart to have proper rules and regulations, and I prefer having this properly done, even if it results in delaying the process,” he added.

The motion to postpone to December failed. (In favor of postponing 53, opposed 139, and 0 abstaining).

The vote on the motion as proposed was 164 in favor, opposed 18, and 9 abstained.

Before it was the civic center, the Electrolux Corporation opened it in 1950 for employee recreation.

After vigorous Town wide discussion, the acquisition of the Civic Center, plus 20 acres of land from the Electrolux Corporation was approved by the RTM in 1966. A subsequent referendum failed to reverse the action.

The sale price was $432,000.