Published April 16. 2014 12:00PM Updated April 17. 2014 7:41PM
Norwich — With the Thames River as a backdrop and standing on a crumbling concrete slab, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy Wednesday announced brownfields assessment grants for Norwich, New London and Preston to start cleanup work that could bring long-vacant, abandoned and contaminated sites back on the state’s tax rolls.
Norwich will receive $200,000 to assess 8.5 acres across five parcels in the Shipping Street-Terminal Way area, a blighted former industrial district that has been a city redevelopment target for the past decade. The city plans to move its boat ramp from the downtown Howard T. Brown Memorial Park to the former industrial property owned by Castle Family Realty.
Officials hope renewed activity in the blighted area that offers scenic views of the Thames River and the Mohegan Sun casino tower in the distance will spur surrounding economic development.
Mayor Deberey Hinchey has met with Malloy’s staff several times since she was elected in November and has made the Shipping Street area and the boat launch relocation one of her top priorities.
City officials and Hinchey’s mayoral predecessors have brought state and federal dignitaries to visit the Shipping Street area numerous times over the past decade hoping to spark support for the costly cleanup and redevelopment task. Hinchey brought U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., to the property last month and discussed it with U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., in February. Blumenthal’s planned tour of Norwich sites was canceled by a snowstorm during his visit.
“This is an exciting event,” Hinchey said to the gathering of about 30 people at the riverfront property. “I want to (say) thank you to the governor and to the commissioners and all the people who have worked very hard on this.”
In New London, a $200,000 brownfield assessment grant will be used to assess the lot at the corner of Bank and Howard streets, the site of a proposed grocery store and housing development, according to Ned Hammond, the city’s economic development coordinator.
The funding may also be used to assess the possibility of redeveloping an old mill building on Garfield Avenue, Hammond said. “We are just tickled pink that we got this money to help move some projects along,” Hammond said. “It will be a big help and a big thank you goes out to the governor.”
Preston’s $200,000 grant would be used to continue the town’s assessment of the remaining buildings slated for demolition at the 393-acre former Norwich Hospital property and to study areas where the state had torn down properties in the past and other spots of potential environmental concern, Preston Redevelopment Agency Chairman Sean Nugent said. The town acquired the former state hospital in 2009.
“This is another piece in the puzzle that will get us finish up on the areas of concern,” First Selectman Robert Congdon said. “We keep maintaining our momentum and that’s a good thing.”
The funding to the three local municipalities is part of a $3.8 million brownfield grant package Malloy announced Wednesday to 21 cities and towns for 22 assessment projects.
Malloy said the state’s industrial past might have been the backbone of the economy years ago, but those buildings and sites now present environmental and blight challenges.
“As Connecticut’s economy continues to grow, more and more of our legacy manufacturing and other brownfield sites are becoming ripe for redevelopment and reuse,” Malloy said.
Rob Klee, recently appointed commissioner of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said redeveloping brownfield sites has the added advantage of protecting the state’s so-called greenfields, or undeveloped open space areas. He said removing contamination also improves public health.
While the brownfield funding is just seed money to assess properties for future potential development, Malloy also gave a “broad” commitment of future state funding for those projects if they prove viable and include public-private partnerships. He said the assessment grants were competitive and not all towns that applied received funding.
Norwich Mayor Deberey Hinchey plans to take advantage of the governor’s offer of future assistance to complete the boat launch development and other possible projects in the Shipping Street area. She said the city is in verbal negotiations with Castle Family Realty, the property owner of the 2.3-acre parcel where the city hopes to place a new boat launch. Hinchey said the owner has been very cooperative in discussions about the plan to move the boat launch.
The city owns a blighted building directly across Terminal Way from the property and could use that for trailer parking and additional parking if riverfront events are held at the site in the future, Director of Planning and Development Peter Davis said.
The boat launch would be located just north of the spot where Malloy made the grant announcement.
The launch currently at Brown Park has been considered unsafe and inconvenient. The boat launch has to be closed during the many summertime festivals at the park, and vehicles hauling trailers have to park along busy Chelsea Harbor Drive or in limited nearby lots. Drivers also have to be wary of the many pedestrians using the park as they back into the launch site.
Staff Writer Colin A. Young contributed to this report.