U.S. Foods sets sights on Norwich's Otrobando Avenue, again

Norwich - U.S. Foods is looking to expand again at its Otrobando Avenue location and might need help from the city and state, Mayor Peter Nystrom said Friday.

The company, which distributes frozen and refrigerated foods and dry goods to restaurants, institutions, health care facilities and hotels, has expanded five times in the past several years.

In the early stages of those expansions, the city rebuilt a portion of Otrobando Avenue, creating a sweeping curve in the road to allow the sprawling distribution center to absorb the old portion of the road into its property. In 2009, the company added a 23,000-square-foot freezer and cooler to the main building, and a year later built a 17,000-square-foot dry goods expansion. Prior to that, U.S. Foods expanded its office and employee services sections. That was done after three previous expansions to the main plant over a five-year period.

Now, Nystrom said, the company might be looking to acquire another portion of Otrobando Avenue, this time eliminating the big curve and moving the road behind the main plant to run parallel to the Central New England rail line.

Nystrom and Norwich Community Development Corp. President Robert Mills met with U.S. Foods officials Friday morning to discuss options. The company would like to build a 25,000-square-foot addition on the north side of the main building, now about 176,000 square feet of space, Nystrom said. But that would cut into the already tight parking area on the property.

Nystrom said U.S. Foods would like to tear down an elongated brick and concrete building near the railroad tracks that now houses only non-food storage. The building likely is contaminated. City officials plan to inquire whether the project can obtain federal brownfields remediation funds.

If that building could be demolished, a portion of Otrobando Avenue could be relocated from the edge of the neighboring Agway property to run parallel to the railroad tracks, rejoining the existing road at the opposite edge of U.S. Foods' property.

The road relocation also would reconnect the company's property across Otrobando Avenue that was cut off when the road was moved the first time. According to city assessor records, U.S. Foods owns a narrow, 6.8-acre parcel on the west side of the road. Nystrom said that area could be used for additional parking for employees or for some of the dozens of trucks that arrive and depart each day.

An official at the U.S. Foods Norwich plant referred calls to the company's Rosemont, Ill., headquarters. Company spokeswoman Lisa Lecas was not available Friday to discuss the Norwich facility's plans.

Nystrom said the new plans will help to solidify further U.S. Foods' presence in Norwich and its importance to the city's commercial tax base. As the buildings have expanded, so has the workforce, from 170 to about 300 today. Nystrom said U.S. Foods would like to add at least 30 additional employees with a new expansion.

"It's a very good success story about (a) company growing and being successful in a tight area," Nystrom said.

Mills said relocating the road is only one option. He said NCDC would work with U.S. Foods to develop two or three different options for accommodating the expansion. He said it's too early to say how the project would be funded and who would pay for any road relocation. The company would have to decide which option would work best, Mills said.

According to city tax records, U.S. Foods owns four properties at the Norwich location under the name USF Propco I LLC based in Phoenix. The largest property, 8.48 acres, houses the main building complex and parking and has an appraised value of $7.9 million. A nearly 3-acre parcel that includes the building that the company would like to demolish is appraised at $2.3 million. A smaller 2.4-acre parcel to the north is valued at $52,000, and the 6.8-acre vacant parcel across the street is valued at $186,000.

According to U.S. Foods' website, the company has 60 locations nationwide and employs 25,000 people. The company distributes 350,000 brand-name products and its own private-label brands to a range of establishments and institutions. Norwich is the company's only Connecticut location.

c.bessette@theday.com

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