Developer focuses on Norwich, Stonington projects

Norwich - Kenneth Olson, chief executive officer of POKO Partners LLC, said "relentless pursuit" has been his development motto over the years, and he has needed it for difficult projects in Stonington and Norwich that have hit repeated delays with mixed results.

Olson, whose latest proposal calls for an $8.4 million, four-phase development in downtown Norwich starting with the former Reid & Hughes building, said Tuesday that he is ready to move forward with the long-stalled Thread Mill project in Pawcatuck.

In 2006, POKO obtained zoning approval to develop the Thread Mill on Mechanic Street into 58 apartments and 9,000 square feet of commercial space. As POKO experienced delays in financing, the mill has fallen into disrepair. In 2012 Pawcatuck Fire Marshal Kevin Burns and Fire Chief Tom Long told the town they were worried about the condition of the property and the risk it poses to neighbors.

Olson, who has predicted he would obtain financing in the past, said Tuesday he will now have it in place by the end of May for the $25 million project, using a combination of state and federal historic preservation tax credits, a state Department of Housing Flex program funding and a Connecticut Housing Finance Authority construction loan. With the state funding, 30 percent of the apartments will be affordable rental units.

"That good news," Burns said Tuesday when told of Olson's comments. "The building has deteriorated even more, so assuming they can get in there and start working, the safer it will be for the neighborhood and the people who live around there."

Burns said he was contacted last week by contractors inquiring about the process for removing underground storage tanks from the site, one of the first tasks that would have to be done.

Stonington Economic Development Commission Chairman Blunt White said Tuesday he had not yet heard about the Thread Mill financing but called it "great news" for the town and said he would be contacting Olson to discuss it. First Selectman Ed Haberek did not respond to a request for comment about the project.

POKO has spent nearly as long trying to put together a redevelopment project for the giant, decaying former Capehart Mill on the banks of the Shetucket River in Greeneville. Collapsed buildings, fires and contaminated PCB spills didn't deter the firm, but failed negotiations to purchase a critical adjacent parking lot, owned by Canal Associates LLC, proved insurmountable, he said.

"We're nowhere," Olson said of Capehart. "We're still interested. We've spent $700,000 on the project."

But Olson said Tuesday his latest interest in downtown Norwich won't drag on for years without results. POKO submitted an $8.4 million proposal to redevelop the former Reid & Hughes building on Main Street and was chosen last week as the preferred development project for the long-vacant former department store.

Olson and Steve Wissak, POKO managing director, said they could not discuss details of the plans, but expressed strong interest in being part of a larger downtown revitalization effort in Norwich. He described the city of Norwich as "motivated" in helping developers improve downtown.

Once again, however, Olson's project is dependent on reaching an agreement with the adjacent property owner. The Lord Family Trust owns three buildings POKO included in the long-term Reid & Hughes plan. The adjacent Strand building on Main Street is critical to the first phase in conjunction with the Reid & Hughes building. Without it, the project dies, he said.

Olson and Wissak said the coming months of negotiations with trust representatives Jeff and Kathryn Lord, should reveal whether the project can go forward. Kathryn Lord declined to comment Tuesday.

Olson said the Lords have been understandably skeptical about outside developers coming to town proposing deals.

"They've seen guys like me come and go over the years," he said, adding that he hopes to give the family a sense of confidence that POKO can do the project.

The city has owned the building for 20 years, and several past development proposals never went forward. The Norwich Community Development Corp., which spearheaded the latest search for a developer, hopes to improve the chances of success this time by taking the building off the city's hands.

NCDC President Robert Mills and Vice President Jason Vincent proposed to the City Council last week that the city turn over ownership of the Reid & Hughes to NCDC. Vincent said Tuesday removing the building from the city's hands also could help the project move along quicker.

"When they realize we're serious and committed, and the city is serious and committed," Olson said of negotiations with the Lord family, "they'll be more willing."

c.bessette@theday.com

Staff reporter Joe Wojtas contributed to this story

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