Stonington - First Selectman Ed Haberek, whose administration has made it a priority to force the owners of blighted buildings to make improvements, said Tuesday that the town is now planning to target the long-vacant Thread Mill property on River Road.
Haberek said the town is preparing to cite the mill's owners, POKO Partners LLC of Port Chester, N.Y., with violating the town's distressed buildings ordinance. POKO would then have the choice of making repairs and securing the building or tearing it down.
Six years ago, the town approved plans for POKO Partners to turn the northern half of the mill into 58 apartments and commercial space. But that project has never gone forward because of the firm's inability to obtain financing in the depressed real estate market.
Today, windows are broken and the building is falling into disrepair. Ken Olson, POKO's president and CEO, said Tuesday he is optimistic about obtaining financing in 2012.
The town has already cited 17 multifamily and commercial properties under its distressed building ordinance, which voters approved 18 months ago. Some property owners have made repairs or cleaned up their properties, while others are accruing hefty fines or have been taken to court by the town because they refused to comply.
The town has already cited two other mills under the ordinance, the long-vacant and dilapidated Connecticut Casting Mill on Stillman Avenue and the Campbell Grain Building on Coggswell Street. The town had forced the owners of both buildings to tear down sections damaged by storms this year. Haberek said grain building owner Frank DeCiantis will have to tear down the rest of the building if he continues to fail to secure the top of the open section of the building. The Connecticut Casting Mill, which also obtained zoning permits in 2005 for a condominium renovation, have been thwarted in part by a costly environmental cleanup and have never moved forward.
Like the Connecticut Casting Mill, POKO has had zoning approval to renovate the Thread Mill but so far the project is stalled.
"I keep reaching out to (Olson) and he says 'money is tight, money is tight. The windows are open and it's becoming a relic. We'll give them a period of time to board it up or they'll have to tear it down," said Haberek, adding such mills are at risk of fire, squatters and vandalism.
He pointed out that other mills in town have been successfully rehabilitated or reused such as American Velvet Mill and the just renovated Allen Spool Mill in Mystic. The Old Mystic Mill and Stonington Commons are other mill success stories in town.
"We're trying to raise the standards so people will take care of their multifamily or commercial properties," said Haberek, who added such improvements then make their neighborhoods more attractive to investment.
Olson said Tuesday that his firm has spent $3 million on the Thread Mill project so far and will not tear it down.
"We're not walking from this project," he said.
Olson said that it was unfortunate that just as he obtained approvals for the project the financing market collapsed.
"That's the only thing that stopped us from getting in the ground," he said.
Olson, who said he understands the town's concerns about vacant mills, said his firm has recently obtained financing for projects in Bridgeport and Norwalk, and is close to obtaining financing to redevelop the Thread Mill.
"We think it will happen in 2012, but I'm not sure if that will be at the beginning, middle or end of the year," he said. "We have a very good feeling about this."
Haberek said there are no plans to cite the owner of the now overgrown and excavated Mystic Color Lab property where all but one exterior wall of the former mill has been torn down. The wall was supposed to have been incorporated as an architectural feature into a luxury condominium project. That project never went forward after its developer received approval in 2006 and proceeded with demolition and site work. The property has since been sold to a development firm that has no immediate plans for it.
And while Yardney Technical Products is moving out of its mill on Mechanic Street, Haberek said other companies have expressed interest in leasing space there.
"We went to keep these mills active," he said.