Preston voters approve funding for state hospital cleanup

Ballot machine tender James Dubois, center, watches as Preston voters are checked in by Fran Mazzella, right, as residents headed back to the polls Tuesday at Preston Town Hall for the referendum vote on a $4 million loan package.

Preston — Voters at referendum on Tuesday passed a $4 million loan package that is expected to continue cleanup efforts on the former Norwich State Hospital site.

With absentee ballots, 304 residents voted to approve the measure while 251 voted to reject it. Nearly 18 percent of the town's more than 3,000 registered voters cast ballots.

The package, which consists of a $2 million state loan from the Department of Economic and Community Development and a matching $2 million town bond, will provide enough funds for the abatement and demolition of some of the smaller buildings on the 390-acre campus.

Preston Redevelopment Agency Chairman Sean Nugent said the efforts in reaching a compromise on a smaller loan package between the Board of Finance and the PRA contributed to its passage.

First Selectman Robert Congdon is expected to sign off on state paperwork and will work with the state's bonding counsel to work through the process of the town's $2 million match, Nugent said.

He said he didn't expect the funding to arrive until the second quarter of next year.

"I've almost become numb," Nugent said of the back and forth with the future of the property. "I didn't want to get so caught up that it defines us. You look at Newtown and the tragedy there, and even if this had failed, we're still alive, we're still here, so that really put things in perspective for me."

On Nov. 27, voters rejected a proposed $8 million loan package for the hospital property by a vote of 319-261. That package called for a $4 million low-cost state loan matched with a $4 million town bond.

In rejecting the initial plan, the town lost out on another $964,000 federal grant that would have accompanied the loan package. That grant expired Dec. 1, but because the bond package was approved by voters on Tuesday, the PRA plans to reapply for the federal grant in March.

The PRA plans to use up the remaining amounts in grants already received to clean and demolish buildings at the hospital property.

Nugent said that the PRA will continue to seek future grants, but those likely would be small amounts, restricting and slowing progress on the cleanup.

The total of the bond package still might not be enough to demolish the larger buildings on the hospital property, Nugent said.

"We had a high-level plan in terms of breaking up the plan to best use the money for the cleanup," Nugent said of the failed $4 million bond and town match.

Congdon said that the rejection of the $2 million state bond and $2 million town match would have been "a step backwards."

"There is no question that the state and federal money would have dried up completely for us," he said. "This sends the right message to developers and to the community."

Nugent said that no developer has expressed interest in some of the smaller parcels of property on the hospital site, but that the PRA remains open to conversations with interested developers.

"It's prime property," he said of the main portion of the campus near the Thames River and railroad tracks. "It leverages the river, the roadwork and the infrastructure that's already in place."


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