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Norwich officials hope to have a say in how bank markets downtown building

By Claire Bessette

Publication: The Day

Published June 11. 2013 4:00AM

Norwich - City leaders and historic preservation advocates were disheartened by Friday's announcement by People's United Bank that it will close the historic former headquarters of Norwich Savings Society, but are hoping to have a say in how the bank markets the unique and ornate stone structure.

People's erected a sign on the door Friday announcing to customers that the branch will close Sept. 6 and accounts transferred to the People's Bank branch inside Stop & Shop Supermarket at Norwichtown Commons.

Norwich officials Monday did not welcome the prospects of another prominent historic building on Main Street becoming vacant at a time when downtown revitalization efforts have been slow to attract new investment.

"It's a landmark building, and it's a shame they're leaving, particularly now, because it's not a strong market," said William Champagne, president of the Norwich Historical Society and a real estate agent specializing in historic properties. "It could make a wonderful restaurant or office building. It has an elevator. But there are not a lot of entrepreneurs knocking on the doors in downtown right now."

Champagne named several downtown landmarks that also either are on the market or vacant, including the post office, the former Elks Club and the Reid & Hughes Building. He said city officials need to create a market for downtown properties.

"They're all beautiful buildings," Champagne said. "There are tremendous opportunities, and they're inexpensive."

Robert Mills, president of the Norwich Community Development Corp., which is overseeing a $3.38 million voter-approved downtown revitalization program, said he had been meeting with bank officials for the past month in anticipation that the bank could seek to close the building.

Mills has asked the bank's real estate representative to list the building with a local commercial real estate firm familiar with downtown Norwich and the region, rather than in Bridgeport, where the bank is based, or an out-of-state firm.

"I think the first strategy is to try to have People's and broker work with us on ideas for the property, on how realistic they are on pricing and whether they would consider leasing. We have to be creative," he said.

NCDC will provide the brokerage firm with details of the downtown revitalization programs, which include matching grants for building code upgrades, lease rebates and loans to developers. Federal historic tax credits could also be available.

Mills said the 32,000- square-foot building complex has many attractive features. The historic 1895 stone corner building curves around the Main Street-Broadway intersection.

City Historian Dale Plummer, who also is president of Norwich Heritage Trust, said the castlelike stone building is a "knock off" of buildings designed by famous 19th century architect Henry Hobson Richardson. The bank was built several years after Hobson died.

c.bessette@theday.com

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