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Norwich proposes $33.4 million downtown police station

By Claire Bessette

Publication: theday.com

Published June 27. 2012 10:00AM   Updated June 27. 2012 11:48PM

Norwich — City officials will try to win voter approval in November to spend $33.4 million to build a new police station and parking garage in the heart of downtown on several properties at Main and Cliff streets.

Public discussion of the project, which has been the subject of numerous closed-door meetings for months, will begin Monday when the City Council will consider placing a $100,000 option on the properties.

Mayor Peter Nystrom said he hopes to schedule a public hearing on the ordinance appropriating $33.385 million for the project for the July 16 City Council meeting, and to place the referendum question on the November election ballot.

Nystrom and Police Chief Louis Fusaro said Wednesday that officials have been focusing on a downtown location for a new police station for about 18 months, and considered this site to be the top choice a year ago.

The site includes several properties owned by the Lord family trust and the estate of Edward Lord. The properties include the former Sears building at 2-6 Cliff St., a three-bay former Sears automotive service center behind the building, and several adjacent parking lots on Main, Hill and Arcadia streets. It also would encompass the city-owned, 70-space parking lot on Cliff Street.

The proposed ordinance lists the project price as $33.385 million for "planning, acquisition and construction" of a new police station. A resolution, expected to be voted on Monday, lists the purchase price for the properties at $2.575 million, and calls for the city to pay a $100,000 option fee to secure the properties through the November referendum.

The deposit would be nonrefundable, but would be applied to the purchase price if voters approve the project.

Residents will get a chance to comment on the resolution Monday.

Fusaro said the project design calls for keeping the 40,000-square-foot art deco Sears building and the attached former movie theater lobby — complete with its half-circle marquis — and building a 20,000-square-foot addition to the side and rear. That addition would house the lock-up area, a secured drive-in to bring suspects into the station, and an indoor shooting range.

A covered parking lot for 18 police cars would be directly behind the Sears building, but the project also includes a three-story parking garage to the right of the building at the city-owned parking lot. The bottom floor would remain public parking with 75 spaces, while the top two stories would be secured for police use only, Fusaro said.

The building also would accommodate community meetings on police matters, with the emphasis on the department's neighborhood community policing efforts.

The police station at 70 West Thames St. does not have enough room, Fusaro said.

Newly appointed community policing supervisor Sgt. Peter Camp has his office in the station's locker room. The victim's advocate shares a former closet with the court officer, Fusaro said. Officers often interview residents on sensitive matters in the police station lobby or in a hallway.

"What I don't want to see happen is what happened last time," Fusaro said. "We didn't do it right the last time. When we built it, we were maxed out as soon as we moved in. We want to build a building to last 50 years. With the addition we are putting on, we can add to it in future years."

Nystrom said the Sears building area clearly is the best of the possible downtown sites. City officials considered the large vacant mill on Chestnut Street, but its 200,000-square-foot size was too big, and the purchase and remediation too costly. The former William A. Buckingham School site also was ruled out.

Nystrom said the Sears building is structurally solid and would need little environmental remediation. Although Sears did automotive work behind the store, preliminary tests show little environmental contamination there.

Nystrom said it is a good time for the city to pursue such a major project. Its finances are in excellent shape, with low indebtedness and a good bond rating that has led to low interest rates on city projects. The poor economy could bring in favorable construction bids, he said.

Nystrom has asked city Comptroller Joseph Ruffo to prepare charts for Monday's meeting showing the city's current bonded debt and projects that are nearly paid off. Ruffo said Wednesday he also will have figures on the tax impact of project ready for Monday.

Fusaro said the value of having a downtown police station cannot be quantified. The project would have a huge impact on the perceived safety of downtown that would make the urban center much more attractive to residents and businesses, he said.

"There's no question it would change downtown," Fusaro said. "There's no way the city can afford to staff the amount of police presence this would add to downtown. All the shift changes, the constant movement of police officers to and from downtown. They are as observant on their way to work as they are on patrol. We couldn't afford to create that presence any other way."

c.bessette@theday.com

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