The recent debate between the three candidates for First Selectmen, all of whom are Orange natives, seemed to highlight shared visions for the town, rather than differences in their campaign platforms. Concerns about taxes, attracting new business to town to expand the commercial tax base, maintaining high education standards, affordable housing for aging residents and improving the town’s buildings and community spaces were the hot topics of the evening. Turn out for the event, held at the Grassy Hill Country Club, exceeded expectations as organizers scrambled to bring in more chairs and open a partition to expand seating into an adjoining meeting room.
The debate was led by Orange resident and University of New Haven Senior Vice President of Academic Affairs Dr. Daniel May. May posed a series of questions to incumbent Jim Zeoli, Democrat contender Margaret Novicki and independent candidate Alex DeAngelo who each had two minutes to answer.
Selectman Jim Zeoli presented his many accomplishments during his 12-year tenure which has resulted in a town he describes as fiscally sound with a triple AAA bond rating, great open space, elementary schools with blue ribbon distinctions and a regional high school that is among one of the best in the state. “We have a lot of good things going on, and a wonderful community,” he said. He pointed out the low vacancy rate on the Boston Post Road, his coups of bringing United Illuminating, Tractor Supply Company, Southern CT Gas Company and more to town and his ongoing meetings with prospective business owners and developers to entice them to come to Orange. “I’ve given a lifetime of commitment to the Town of Orange and maybe that’s why I’m not married and maybe that’s why I have no children, I don’t know but my life has been spent helping, working and volunteering for this town for 58 years and I’ve loved every minute of it,” he said. “I love being First Selectman and ask for the opportunity to continue to do it for the next two years.”
Margaret Novicki, who recently retired from a distinguished, 22-year career with the United Nations, including assignments in Africa and peace-keeping missions in war-torn countries, believes Orange has “been preserved in a time capsule of times gone by” and she could move the town on a more vibrant and thriving path. “I feel the town has stagnated economically over the past 12 years, and we have to focus strongly on our economic development,” she said. “I don’t think we have kept up with our neighbor, Milford—they are attracting a lot of business that we are not. The Post Road looks sadder than it did when I was growing up here and there are big commercial properties that are still not being developed. We hear things are coming, but year after year they haven’t materialized.” As the mother of a son who is in artist, Novicki is also committed to developing the arts in town, perhaps finding a building or space where creative people could meet and exhibit their work.
Recently graduated from Southern Connecticut State University, Independent Alex DeAngelo “wants to be a voice for the millennials and anyone who doesn’t have a voice. “He too believes economic development is a “pressing issue” and he would focus on bringing more business to town. Having graduated with a degree in science and sports management, and completing internships with the Kansas City Chiefs and the Philadelphia 76ers, sports is near and dear to DeAngelo’s heart. Upgrading the tennis and basketball courts and softball fields would be on his agenda as Selectman and he would look into ways to make money renting out the town’s athletic facilities to various groups for events and tournaments.
Challengers described the High Plains Community Center as “a dump,” with DeAngelo and Novicki saying renovations are long overdue and Zeoli concurring the south wing is “disgraceful”. “It’s taken too long to get some of that work done. We were given bad numbers that didn’t add up,” Zeoli said. “The Senior Café is due for a revamp and repainting.” Novicki added, “Our library and community center should be our crown jewels that residents can be proud of. They are not beautiful and it’s taken too long to get repairs.” Campaigning in the Senior Center brought the dreary conditions there to Novicki’s and DeAngelo’s attention and they both maintain the seniors deserve a more inviting space to meet.
All three candidates expressed frustration with the dated and aging Orange Convenience Center, and the nearly vacant Firelite Shopping Center and agreed that either spot could be ideal for a town center where the community could gather for shopping and socializing. Zeoli shared that developers have expressed interest in both locations but Orange Convenience Center owner Frank Rogers is not interested in selling and the Firelite Center is for sale for $5 million, a price that buyers feel is not in keeping with comparable real estate in the area. Zeoli and Novicki reminisced about the past, when the Firelite Plaza housed a bakery, grocer, package store, women’s clothing store and diner.
Zeoli countered that his administration is and has been dedicated to economic development, pointing out he works closely with Ann Marie Slibey, director of the town’s Economic Development Commission to attract business to town. He told the assembled residents that it’s been three years in the making but finally a long-vacant building across from the Hitchcock Plaza has been rented and clean up on the property has begun. And while Zeoli can’t give details about prospective deals that haven’t been finalized, there is “a lot going on” in town, including possible plans to rent 80,000 square feet to build a children’s entertainment center and interest by a specialized business in the automotive industry to lease 65,000 square feet on Con-Air Road.
While taxes have increased two per cent annually during Zeoli’s terms, he said prior to his tenure they were increasing about six percent a year. Taking office just before the economy took a nosedive in 2007 meant he’s learned “to do more with less”. Zeoli said he’s always mindful of ways to save the town money. “I’m cheap!” he said. He cited replacing the town’s street lights with LED lights, sharing heavy equipment with Bethany, regionalizing Animal Control and replacing the controls on the town pool as just a few examples of ways his administration has been able to save hundreds of thousands of dollars. Novicki countered that taxes in Orange are higher than comparable sized towns and Milford has even lowered taxes.
In her closing statement Novicki said, “I have had wide experience in the management field in the outside world, and I have a lot of skills and expertise to bring to this town I love. I strongly support our education system and will do everything to ensure it is at the cutting edge. I think we can expect more from local government. It’s time for new leadership. It’s a new day in Orange and it’s time for a change. ”
DeAngelo acknowledged that many people were skeptical that at 24 years old, he could be a serious contender for the job. “In my opinion that benefits the town because I am young and have a lot of life to live. I have a lot of fight and passion. I’ll be here for a while so I might as well start when I’m young. That’s my honest answer,” he said. “I want to be a voice for people who are afraid to speak up for what they believe in or who want things to change but don’t make their opinions known. Me running is very bold and I wanted to have a voice to say what is on residents’ minds. I want to be a voice for my generation as they are the future of Orange.”
By Laura Fantarella – Orange Town News Correspondent