The Art of the Possible: Alum Transforms Brownfields into Green Community
Steve Soler, in blue shirt, and his team engaged in a
It all starts with a vision. And Steve Soler ’82 (economics) makes it his business to turn a vision into a reality. More specifically, Soler, as president of Georgetown Land Development Company, LLC, and owner of the former Redding, Connecticut, Gilbert & Bennett Wire Mill, is transforming the property into a green, Smart Growth Transit Oriented Development. He is proving that it is possible to reclaim an abandoned wasteland and turn it into a beautiful, sustainable village center that embraces its history, is environmentally responsible, and eliminates complete dependence on a car.
The Wire Mill Redevelopment—known as Georgetown—is using the latest in green technology. “All our buildings, new or renovated,” says Soler, “will incorporate state-of-the-art technology and design, as well as energy-efficient systems, like photovoltaics. A new turbine for the 18-foot waterfall that once powered the mill will produce hydroelectricity. Fuel cell technology will generate clean electric power, and the heat 'waste' from that process will we reengineered for building heating, cooling and hot water as needed—including the proposed Wilton Family Y and its 50-meter pool.” Residential construction is scheduled to begin this summer. Read more about the project at www.georgetownland.com.
So how does a kid from Randolph, Massachusetts, make it in real estate development? “My childhood was very influential,” Soler relates. “Parochial school (I still have the ruler marks to prove it!) helped shape my learning skills, but my mother was a task master. She made me get a job early and taught me the value of a dollar—and to respect people who have less than we did. My Dad, a chief bosun’s mate, got his GED in 1968 and attended MIT. He stressed the value of lifelong education.”
Soler attended UMass Amherst because “it was the least expensive good school for me. When paying yourself, you look for the cheapest option.” After sophomore year, he wanted to quit. “My academic advisor, Randall Bausor, suggested I do an internship, thinking a little real-world experience might help me decide. I went to D.C. through the Washington Center for Learning Alternatives, as it was known then (started by a UMass Amherst alum, by the way). To this date the Washington Center is the best place for college students to obtain an internship.”
The experience opened Soler’s eyes. He came back to UMass Amherst, aced the semester and never looked back. “The econ department taught me how to think,” Soler says. “Critical thinking is the mainstay of the department. Some of the brightest educators I have ever met were—and still are—in that department. They taught me to look at things through a different lens, instead of the same old way. That definitely shaped how I see real estate, development and communities.”
The Mill was a natural progression of Soler’s experiences that began in Boston where he worked for real estate developer Mark Goldweitz after a couple of false starts. “He was the smartest person I ever worked for,” Soler recalls. “I acquired a taste for real estate finance and development, and then in 1987 moved to Connecticut as a real estate lending officer for the first of two banks. At the second, I ran the commercial real estate department, but then I was ‘the messenger who got shot’ and needed to reinvent myself. I bounced around some before seeing the opportunity of buying distressed debt, secured by environmentally impaired real estate. That’s how I got into the Brownfields business—before it was called Brownfields.”
Buying older industrial or contaminated sites and repositioning them for development has had its quirky moments. “Once I was looking at a building in Miami, doing due diligence,” Soler recalls, “and a guy ran out with a gun. He thought I was going to repo his car. And another time in Newark, I thought it was strange seeing five evangelical churches in a building I was considering. One, yes, but five? I was about to take a picture when a dozen people ran out. ‘How odd,’ I thought. Then, noting about a hundred phone lines going in the back, I figured out it was a bookie joint. They must have thought I was the FBI.”
Soler has been working on the Georgetown project for 5 years. “Daily we address a magnitude of issues and requirements, ranging from financing to development to sustainable energy generation requirements for the project,” he says. “Think of it as a frog jumping from lily pad to lily pad. No two days are alike.”
Last fall Georgetown was profiled at the EPA Brownfields conference, and Soler finds himself lecturing regularly at Harvard’s School of Design. He also has another project in the works. But with this success, time has become a precious commodity. “Most public meetings involving real estate are at night,” Soler explains. “I’m often not home until after 11 p.m. I’m a big fan of community service, but lately I don’t have time to dedicate to the various nonprofit boards I once served. Instead, I offer financial support to various safety net organizations for people who need a hand up and sometimes a hand out. I try to take my daughters to school before heading out to the office. And we carve out time for family trips. My wife keeps me grounded.”
Soler carries strong memories of UMass Amherst. “The whole experience, solid academics with a great social setting, was second to none. The university is, for some reason, held in higher regard outside the state than in Massachusetts. Odd—it has everything to offer if you want to take advantage of it. I’d like to see more connection with alumni. It seems we’re only connected when the basketball team wins. That shouldn’t be the only event that brings us together. I’d also like to see a stronger work-study, for-credit program for students, not only to give them some sense of direction but to create a mentoring program. Seeing what really happens during the day would be tremendously helpful not only for those who will soon graduate, but for the next tier coming in the door.”
February 20, 2007