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April 11, 2022

With private investment, Bristol’s former Theis Precision Steel site sees new life

PHOTO | COSTAR The Theis Precision Steel site in Bristol ceased operations in 2019, but two separate investors have bought different sections of the property to bring them back to life.

When Theis Precision Steel ceased operations at its Bristol complex in 2019, city officials had to focus on something municipalities across the state and country have been grappling with for years: returning a former manufacturing facility to its former glory and replacing hundreds of jobs.

But while many industrial hulks have sat vacant in Connecticut cities and towns for years, even decades, Bristol is making relatively quick headway in bringing the former Theis site back to life.

The property is broken into separate parcels at 300 and 340 Broad St., and contains more than 300,000 square feet of industrial/manufacturing/distribution space.

In February, New York real estate development and construction firm Stillman Development International purchased the three-building parcel at 300 Broad St. for $1 million, with plans to renovate the space and lease it to new tenants.

And last year, Chicago-based manufacturer Combined Metals purchased the adjacent 340 Broad St. property, which includes the former Theis tower, for $350,000, with plans to expand its steel processing and distribution business at the site.

City and real estate experts say red hot demand for industrial space is helping drive activity at the property, and could provide hope for other communities looking to revive defunct manufacturing spaces.

“The site itself is very significant for the city,” said Justin Malley, Bristol’s executive director of economic and community development. “All properties are important to us, but we don’t have many very large properties with that sort of square footage that are industrial or distribution in nature.”

Modernization effort

When Theis closed its Bristol plant in 2019 it only had about 30 to 35 remaining local employees. Theis’ German corporate parent company sold the operation to private investment group TPS Acquisition in 2014; the company employed about 90 people at that time before scaling down.

But in the facility’s heyday decades ago, Bristol city officials said, the plant had several hundred workers.

“There were significant folks who lost their jobs at that point,” Malley said. “When something like that happens, what we want to do is come in and help in any way that we can.”

Malley said his team took meetings with interested parties over the last two years trying to find a suitor for the property. Combined Metals entered the scene in 2021.

The company, which processes and distributes specialized metals, purchased the 150-foot tower building midway through last year.

“Their steel operation is fairly specific, and the tower really is what Combined was looking for,” Malley said.

The city does offer tax abatements and grants to encourage economic development, but so far none have been approved to parties involved in the redevelopment of the Theis Precision Steel property.

Combined Metals touts itself as the largest independent processor and distributor of precision flat-rolled steel and specialty metal products.

Alice Stengel, the company’s director of marketing, said Combined Metals was attracted to the Bristol property because the tower contains a vertical Ebner annealing furnace, which heats steel to high temperatures so it’s malleable.

“This really expands our capacity to roll metal,” Stengel said.

Stengel said a skeleton crew has been working at the facility to get machinery online, and the company has also been performing landscaping, clearing parking areas, and generally revamping the site. She declined to disclose how much the company is investing in the property.

“We’ve made some upgrades to the facility while we continue to get the mill online,” Stengel said, adding that work should be finished in the coming months.

Stengel said the large machinery at the site doesn’t require a lot of manpower or regular maintenance, so the company’s employee count in Bristol won’t be huge. It plans to employ up to 20 people when everything is up and running, she said.

New inventory

Stillman Development is taking a different approach with its section of the property, hoping to rehab it and then find new tenants.

President Roy Stillman said the three buildings it purchased at 300 Broad St., were erected in the early 1900s, so significant upgrades need to be done to modernize it for the 21st century.

“At its best, this was a three-shift employer right smack in the middle of the city,” Stillman said. “So, it’s our job to get this into a really modern, usable, occupied, job-producing environment.”

Because of past use as a steel manufacturing facility, there is significant electrical and gas capacity at the site, Stillman said, which he called a unique perk.

“They need upgrades, but they have really great infrastructure,” Stillman said. “When the first of the buildings was built, the forklift hadn’t even been invented yet.”

Stillman said the focus over the next several months is to install new floors and roofs, repaint and make other facade improvements.

“The floor leveling is important because user demands on industrial warehouse and distribution buildings have changed over the years as you get into the need for more level floors associated with higher stacking and the use of forklifts,” Stillman said.

There are also rail spurs going in and out of the property, some of which have been paved over and will need remediation. Stillman said they’ll market the property to rail users like those specializing in heavy construction manufacturing or production.

With large ceilings and big open spaces, the property has numerous manufacturing uses, he said.

“The [rail service] makes the property available for heavy industry and takes trucks off the road, an environmentally good thing to do,” Stillman said.

Stillman said his company is investing “several million dollars” in renovations on a rolling basis over the next few years, and initial work, like roof repairs, is already underway.

“When we’re done, what we’re going to have here is a massively upgraded and modernized facility,” Stillman said. “We want to return it to the real estate inventory so it can be fully utilized again and provide jobs for the local people.”

CT potential

Stillman said he sees other opportunities in Connecticut. Last year his firm purchased a 150,000-square-foot Newington industrial building at 1170 Main St., that it’s also modernizing to prepare for a new tenant.

“Connecticut does have some really excellent assets that haven’t been maintained over time, so it really is a perfect match of our ability, our specialties and what’s available from a real estate environment,” Stillman said.

Stengel shared a similar sentiment about the state, adding that Bristol’s Northeast location near major cities made Combined Metals want to buy the site.

Sean Kumnick, a broker at Colliers International, said his firm was hired by Theis Precision to market 300 Broad St. for sale after the company idled the facility in 2019. Kumnick said Colliers, which has been retained to lease the property, had more than 40 showings over the last few years before Stillman Development purchased it.

Kumnick said available industrial space has been shrinking in the Hartford area as more properties get bought up. And there just aren’t many, if any, industrial-use sites available that have both rail service and large warehousing space, he said.

“Bristol has [an industrial] vacancy rate of 1.9% … and we have seen increased user demand for space in that part of the state,” Kumnick said. “Once repositioned this space will quickly be leased due to its central location in Connecticut and midway point between New York City and Boston.”

Malley said the city would like to see tenants that add significant local jobs.

“We’re as open-minded as the property owner and we’re going to support any tenant that makes sense for them and the city of Bristol,” Malley said.

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