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Preston — More than 100 people toured the former Norwich Hospital property by bus Saturday and saw a more open landscape with 46 former buildings reduced to rubble.
"I was surprised how you don't recognize the place with all the buildings gone," said Michael Ezell of Preston, who once worked as a mental health associate at the former state hospital.
"With all the buildings gone, you realize how big the place is," said Harry Coleman of Preston, who also formerly worked there.
The Preston Redevelopment Agency has raised $15 million in state grants, federal money, town matching funds and scrap value to clean the site, Agency Chairman Sean Nugent said. Crews have leveled 46 of the 55 original blighted buildings on the property when Preston bought it.
The town is responsible for about $4 million right now, including a $2 million match and a $2 million loan, but that could be forgiven at some point, Nugent said. The state will forgive $1 million of the loan for every 100 permanent jobs created after 2016, he said.
Developers are showing interest, he added.
"We've gone from doing no tours to doing one every two weeks," he said, declining to elaborate on who is looking at the property. He said the property is viewed as a future site of "mixed use" development, such as retail, hotels, housing over retail shops, light industrial building or some combination.
By the end of the year, the agency hopes to have demolished 78 percent of the 1.3 million square feet of building space on the property, Nugent said.
The agency arranged for two school buses to provide the 40-minute tours on Saturday. It needed three. People came from nearby towns like Norwich, New London and Groton, but also from as far away as West Haven, Glastonbury and Boston.
Many of the demolished buildings along the drive have been reduced to open areas of crushed brick. Agency Vice Chairman Jim Bell explained that crews cleaned out asbestos and other hazardous material first, then filled foundations with crushed brick and stone that remained after demolition.
It was a way to save money until the future is more clear, he said. There's no sense cleaning up brick if an area may become a parking lot, for example, he said.
The agency is trying to save the former administration building, built in 1904 as the original hospital and one of the most recognizable buildings on the site that is now called Preston Riverwalk.
The building was in near ruin when Preston got it; copper pipes had been stolen, fires set, windows broken and the roof cracked.
But after an architectural firm deemed it structurally sound, the agency worked with federal and state agencies to seal the roof, install temporary windows, dam tunnels and clean asbestos from the basement. Now it may be saved, Nugent said.
"It's available for a developer to consider as part of their plan," he said.
Ann MacDonald of Ledyard waited to board a bus Saturday morning. She worked in the Ribicoff Building as a pathologist from 1947 to 1988.
"I wanted to see it before it was all gone," she said. "I thought I might see the building I worked in." The Ribicoff is now rubble.
Chuck and Sue Baker of Uncasville lived in Preston for more than 30 years and now are on the opposite side of the Thames River.
They wanted to find out what the agency was tearing down, what it was keeping and if it had development prospects.
"I'd like to see something like Mayo Clinic," said Sue Baker.
"Research and development," Chuck Baker said. "In the medical field, you know?"