NCDC marks 50 years of envisioning Norwich's future

Norwich - In the early 1960s, the rolling hills at the border of Norwich and Franklin consisted of farm fields, woodland and wetlands.

Today, that area is the Stanley Israelite Norwich Business Park, named for the city politician and business advocate who saw its future some 50 years ago as he watched a farmer leading a draft horse and a hay cutter on the 100-acre parcel the fledgling Norwich Community Development Corp. had just purchased for $100,000.

The 450-acre business park launched in 1964 now has development with a total real estate value of $110,602,000 on the city's tax rolls - not including the personal property values of equipment and motor vehicles owned by the businesses.

The 40 businesses, several nonprofit entities and 756 apartments, condomiums and assisted living units there collectively employ 2,300 people, plus summer seasonal workers at the Thomas J. Dodd Memorial Stadium.

"I was hoping for 100 years," Israelite said last week when asked if he expected his legacy to be still going strong after 50 years. "Whenever you start something, you hope it will be successful. There's more to go. There's much more to go."

The 88-year-old Israelite said he still sees the same development potential across the border in Franklin, where much land adjacent to the Norwich business park remains undeveloped.

"There's more land that can be developed," Israelite said. "All it takes is a little cooperation from all the towns in that area."

About 60 people gathered Tuesday at the Spirit of Broadway Theater to celebrate the 50th anniversary of NCDC, with proclamations by the city and state legislature, a giant cake and a photo album chronicling the construction of the Thomas J. Dodd Memorial Stadium in 1994 in the business park.

NCDC was not involved in the project that brought the Spirit of Broadway to the former city fire station, but NCDC's mark is evident in other buildings throughout downtown - including some that are not as popular with residents and politicians.

In addition to developing and overseeing the business park, the private nonprofit agency built the $4.5 million Norwich Superior Courthouse, the $19 million Mercantile Exchange office complex on Main Street and the controversial $22 million Norwich Transportation Center at Norwich Harbor. The transportation center serves as the hub for Southeast Area Transit, but has seen little other activity in the three-story parking garage. Plans for a small retail outlet there also have fallen through.

NCDC also administered the $10.5 million renovation and expansion of Otis Library on Main Street.

Outside downtown, NCDC took over a long-standing and languishing cleanup of a burned-out mill in Occum and built the $6 million Robert "Red" McKeon Occum Park.

In the business park, NCDC built the $9.3 million Thomas J. Dodd Memorial Stadium.

Daniel Dennis, former president of the Norwich Savings Society and longtime treasurer and president of the NCDC board, said he is proud of the agency, its accomplishments and its current activities. Dennis credited Israelite and attorney Milton Jacobson for their tenacious work in getting NCDC off the ground in 1963, early NCDC leaders George Jenkins and Clarence "Skeets" Gustafson, as well as later member and Norwich marina developer Ronald Aliano.

Dennis said people used to say that Israelite's Rolodex alone was "worth a million dollars." If there was an important political or business official in Connecticut, Israelite had the contact number.

"(NCDC) has played a wonderful role in economic development for the city and always has been there to help out the City Council whenever they requested us to be there," Dennis said.

Most of NCDC's past building projects were funded by state, federal and local grants. With major construction projects behind it, NCDC had to shift focus several years ago and find new purpose.

The city of Norwich and Norwich Public Utilities each contribute $150,000 to the NCDC operating budget, which totals $519,164 this fiscal year. City and NPU officials several years ago demanded that shift in focus for NCDC, rejuvenating the agency that had been operating for a time without an executive director as projects were winding down.

Current NCDC President Robert Mills was hired in July 2008, and new bylaws shrank the size of the board of directors and called for quantifying the return on the city's investment.

NCDC has been renewed each year as the city's economic development agency and now is overseeing the $3.38 million downtown revitalization program that offers a combination of grants and loans to downtown property owners and businesses. Although progress has been slow, NCDC has awarded grants and loans totaling $744,415 in the combined programs thus far.

NCDC also has branched out into several nontraditional fields to boost what agency Vice President Jason Vincent calls the "mom factor" of a family-friendly downtown. NCDC runs the summer and fall weekly farmers market at the Howard T. Brown Memorial Park, helps promote downtown festivals and in 2012 even organized an Easter egg hunt at Brown Park. NCDC also runs a "Picture Yourself" photo contest on Facebook in which contestants submit photos of themselves at Norwich events.

In the fall NCDC organized numerous walking tours of Norwich as part of the Last Green Valley's annual Walk tober series. The agency also is hoping to gain federal support to develop the historic and scenic Uncas Leap area into a formal park and heritage site.

Last spring, as the City Council prepared to vote to renew funding for NCDC, Mills pledged improved accountability to the council for his staff's activities and how they translate into increased tax and public utility revenue for the city.

NCDC is working on a new database that will track activity in the business park, calculate total tax revenue, jobs, vacant space available and how that space is being filled. City tax records contain the information, but with hundreds of specific addresses in the business park, the information has never been compiled in one package, Vincent said.

NCDC officials hope the new database will better show people what has been accomplished in 50 years of economic development.

c.bessette@theday.com

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