Preston voters should seize opportunity

It is understandable why many in Preston are frustrated with the continuing attempts to develop the former Norwich Hospital property. Past Connecticut administrations dealt the town a raw deal by abandoning the large campus in the mid-1990s without any plan to clean up the pollution left behind, no policy as to what buildings and other facilities were worth saving and which should be razed, or even taking steps to properly secure and mothball the buildings.

Since then Preston residents, most who yearn to see the riverside property developed and generating desperately needed tax revenue for the town, have witnessed state and town officials field numerous proposals from developers. Some were unrealistic and given far more time, money and attention than they deserved, others more sensible but ultimately impractical because of economic conditions and the high-cost of cleaning up the site.

In 2009 voters, in a close decision, accepted the state's offer to sell the 393 acres in Preston to the town for $1. In essence Preston citizens placed the bet that their little town could do better than the state in getting the property sold and producing tax dollars. At the time this newspaper felt taking responsibility for the property was too great a risk and too much of a liability for Preston. But due to the efforts of Preston leaders and the many hours of volunteer service by members of the Preston Redevelopment Agency, significant progress has taken place. In return for hauling away scrap metal and other recyclable building materials, contractors have razed many structures on the former campus. Leveraging $300,000 in matching expenditures, the town has obtained about $3.7 million in federal and state grants to remove hazardous materials and continue the cleanup of the property. And in the administration of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, Preston has found a willing and able partner in the effort to redevelop the site and generate jobs as well as tax revenues.

Yet the bottom line is still no development. For that reason some voters, we imagine, may have buyer remorse about approving the town's purchase of the property, while others may fear any future investments could be doubling down on a bad debt.

But the state will not be taking the property back. Voting against a future investment on the basis that taking control of the property to begin with was a mistake would be illogical and counterproductive. And while voters should rightfully be weary of making any bad investments in the property, they should not let fear of any risk taking allow a good opportunity to pass by. We are convinced that Preston now has such an opportunity.

Town leaders have negotiated for an attractive $4 million loan from the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development. Repayment will not begin for five years, giving ample time to pursue developers. The interest rate is only 1.5 percent. And for every 100 permanent jobs created through future development, the state will forgive $1 million.

To get the loan, however, the town needs skin in the game - bonding a matching $4 million. The $8 million state and town investment would leverage another $964,000 in federal grant money. The nearly $9 million would be used to demolish and remediate some of the largest buildings on the property and greatly improve the prospects for redevelopment. And Preston voters should not forget this land has much going for it, including its location along the Thames River, with easy highway access and public utilities.

This is the chance to get development efforts over the hump. Voters on Tuesday should vote yes on approving the borrowing necessary to finally get this vital property cleaned up, revitalized and on the tax rolls.

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