Preston's burden

With an eye toward future development and away from its past history as an asylum for people with mental illnesses, Preston officials a few years ago gave the former Norwich Hospital campus a new name - Preston Riverwalk.

Sounds nice but, unfortunately, Preston Moneypit might have been more apt.

Last week came the latest unpleasant news. The Preston Redevelopment Agency announced that adhering to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requirements for PCB testing and removal could add another $8 million to the clean-up cost for the 393-acre property.

Since voters approved taking control of the land from the state in 2009 (we urged voters to just say "no"), this small town has made a gallant effort to clean up the property and attract developers. Volunteers have put in long hours applying for grants, soliciting development proposals, and finding creative approaches to get work done - for example, some structures were razed and materials hauled away free for their reuse value. New zoning rules provide plenty of flexibility to pursue development. A Clean Energy Task Force is assessing the possible use of portions of the property for renewable energy generation and research.

Despite all these efforts, potential new development seems no closer than back when Preston voters, frustrated by the state's mismanagement of the long-vacant property, decided to go it alone.

The town has managed to clean up about one-fifth of the campus footprint. The two largest and most expensive buildings to demolish, the Lodge and Kettle buildings, remain. After seeing requests for several federal grant requests rejected, Preston is seeking another $10.5 million in state grants to continue cleanup. Voters already approved $2 million bonding to attract a $2 million state low-interest loan.

It is certainly in the state's interest to see economic development at Preston Riverwalk, and the administration of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has been far more involved in such efforts than past administrations. But town officials cannot bet on the state spigot remaining open.

Meanwhile, the sale by the state of nearly 50 acres of campus property in adjacent Norwich - which declined the state's offer to take the land in its city - is proceeding, a move that will return the property to the tax rolls.

Perhaps someday Preston's decision to take the property will prove wise, but not so far.

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