State businessman eyes decaying mill complex for makeover

Vernon (AP) - The Hockanum Mill complex looks like a crumbling monument to the town's past as an industrial hub, but behind the peeling paint and empty, broken windows, a local businessman is breathing new life into the buildings.

"I don't see what is. I see what can be. I see potential," Ken Kaplan, owner of Kaplan Computers, says. "When it's done, it's going to be an amazing place."

The complex dates to the 1800s, and the white wooden structure visible along West Main Street was built in the 1850s to replace the circa-1814 building that burned down in 1854. Kaplan says the new building was constructed with posts and beams, with bricks in between, a style that Kerry Uzell, one of two job foremen, calls "slow-burn technology."

Since then, the buildings have survived a number of fires of varying sizes, been the subject of failed plans to be turned into apartments, and endured an FBI investigation of former tenants for environmental violations.

Potential $6M project

In April, Kaplan Mill Works LLC was approved for a $2 million loan from the state for work on the mill, which Kaplan says he plans to spend on four of the 11 buildings. He says that he plans to apply for another round of funding, and estimates that $5 million to $6 million might be necessary to rehabilitate the entire property, a project he says could take five years.

"It was really close to being at the point of no return," Kaplan says. "When you were driving into this complex, it was like driving into an abandoned city."

For now, Kaplan, with the help of Crosskey Architects of Hartford, is focusing on the white office building, the main white building, a concrete building behind these two, and another building in the same area.

Kaplan says he is working with the federal Environmental Protection Agency and state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection to clean up toxins on the site, including asbestos, lead, and petroleum products in the soil. He says this is a lengthy, regimented process that is done in phases and while much has been cleared, there is still more to be done.

Kaplan says new water mains had to be installed and new electric work had to be done and because it is a historic building everything must be made to look original.

"We're trying to restore anything we can rather than replace it," Kaplan says. "In order to do this project, we can't be throwing money away - there's too much work to do."

The interior of the office building, a white, two-story house-like structure, which still contains the original safe from the 1800s, was "waist-deep" in garbage and debris when it was opened up, Kaplan says. Envisioning the building as his office, he says the wood floors will be restored, the conference table will be made of wood salvaged from the mill, and it will be the "showpiece" at the front of the property.

The concrete building, which Kaplan refers to as "building 4," contained "one of the scariest rooms" in the mill, and was full of graffiti, drug paraphernalia, and satanic symbols. Still visible on a rusted metal door leading out to air on the neighboring building, which is not part of the current project, is a swastika and the symbol for the Nazi SS.

"We cast a lot of demons out down here," Kaplan says.

Homeless living there

He also says that about 10 or 11 homeless people were living in the building, elsewhere in the complex, or in a tent city in the woods on the property. He and some others camped out in the complex for about 11 days, and with help from the Police Department, ensured that each person moved on.

Kaplan hopes to move Kaplan Cycles, a motorcycle shop, into the building before the end of February. He envisions the first floor as a restoration facility, with the top floor, which has walls made almost entirely of windows, serving as a showroom.

A covered walkway leads from this building into the main white building, or "building 3," of which the first and second floors eventually will be a technology center for Kaplan Computers.

Kaplan envisions the third floor as a 10,000-square-foot showroom, with an inventory of about 600 motorcycles. He also mentioned that a restaurant may be looking to fill a spot on the first floor along West Main Street, and estimated that the renovation could take up to two years to complete.

"When we get this project done, this area is going to be very, very nice," Uzell says.

Now, the building, which is as long as a football field, is essentially empty, with peeling paint on the ceiling and warped floors due to water damage and rotting beams. In the center of the expanse is a machine leftover from the textile mill's heyday, which Kaplan says will be restored and used as part of the landscaping outside.

Behind the long building and next to the one that will house the motorcycle shop, there are three brick walls that Kaplan says will be covered with a steel roof and turned into a storage room for the technology center.

Kaplan says he decided to take a chance on the project because after growing up in Rockville, he wanted to give back to the community and the mill gave him a chance to make an impression and leave a mark.

As part of the loan agreement with the state, Kaplan says he has to create 25 new jobs. So far, he has hired only people who were previously unemployed, and has created 20 new jobs, at least half of which are filled by Rockville residents.

"It's pretty cool to be able to make a difference like that," Kaplan says.

He says the area has a demand for "good industrial space," which is in short supply, and it also allows him to move his multiple businesses into the complex.

"It's a really unique situation where I can interact with all the customers at the same time," Kaplan says.

In addition to the motorcycle and computer businesses, Kaplan says he also has purchased Tolland and Hartford county franchise rights for Concrete Technology Inc., a concrete resurfacing company based out of Florida, which he says can make concrete look like tile, brick, or other types of surfaces. He says that it will be responsible for much of the concrete work at the mill.

In the end, though many people, including his 8-year-old daughter, Jordan, see nothing but a "rusty old mill," Kaplan is excited about the work that is getting done, and is optimistic about the mill's future.

"Every day I push paper and nothing really changes. Then I come over here and I can see it changing by the day," Kaplan says. "I think I can make a big difference here."

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