Ponemah Mill transformation could define next century of Taftville history

Jeremiah Csuback, an electrical worker, walks down the hallway during a tour Tuesday, May 2, 2017, of the renovations at the Ponemah Mill in Taftville.  (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
Jeremiah Csuback, an electrical worker, walks down the hallway during a tour Tuesday, May 2, 2017, of the renovations at the Ponemah Mill in Taftville. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)

Norwich — When he was a kid in Taftville, Jeff Welch grew up with the Ponemah Mill, its slowly deteriorating twin towers a reminder of an industrial past that he knew only from stories.

By the time he was a student at Wequonnoc School, the mill had become economically irrelevant, housing a business or two at times and serving as the centerpiece of historical walking tours of the quintessential New England mill village model.

These days, Welch, a roofer with Rainey Construction LLC of New London, has a much different view, as his firm is among dozens of contractors working to make sure the mill lasts another century and beyond.

“It’s exciting,” Welch said in a cellphone interview while sitting atop a newly installed bright white dormer on the mill’s mansard roof. “My family is really excited about it. My family are Taftville people. I went to Wequonnoc School. My mom might have worked in the mill a long time ago. ... I have seen converted mills in the past and thought that this would have good potential if it was restored. It could be really spectacular.”

New Jersey-based Onekey LLC is progressing rapidly on its project to convert what was once the largest cotton manufacturing plant in the world into 314 affordable and market-rate apartments with more than a few luxurious touches. The $30 million first phase with 116 apartments is about 70 percent complete and set to open in October. Construction on the $32 million, 121-unit phase two should begin shortly thereafter, said Finbar O’Neill, director of operations for Onekey.

O’Neill on Tuesday provided a tour — from a basement tunnel to the scaffolding that climbs to the weather vane that caps the cupola on the south stair tower well above the five-story structure — to a Day reporter, editor and photographer.

Onekey has been at the project since 2005, when the company first investigated the extent of asbestos, lead and other environmental contamination — the first obstacle to overcome in any effort to save a giant historic mill, he said. By 2007, the company made the commitment and closed on Ponemah Mill No. 1. Then came obstacle two, the housing crash.

“It was virtually impossible to get any banks to provide financing,” he said.

So the building sat, and O’Neill and his wife, Onekey President Paula O’Neill, worked on creative financing, including federal and state historic tax credits, affordable housing grants and loans and tax breaks through the city’s Mill Enhancement plan, written in 1992 in an effort to save deteriorating historical mills.

In the meantime, windows continued to break. Pigeons and vermin moved in. Rain, snow, hurricanes and blizzards took a toll on the decaying roof and ornate features. But Ponemah endured.

“The original construction is what saved this building,” O’Neill said.

With relentless lobbying by Mayor Deberey Hinchey, and City Council approval for a tax abatement package, Ponemah obtained housing grants, loans and tax credits to launch the first phase of the project. Halfway through completion came another announcement April 12 of a $6.1 million state grant to support the second phase.

Weathervanes will stay

The enormity of the project is evident in grand and minute details. Crews have created modern replicas of the mill’s 1,368 windows, will replace and restore the iron fence along the front and will preserve the working mill bell in the south stair tower. A public museum dedicated to the mill, village and its workers will occupy the first two stories of the stair tower.

Pointing to the replicated fiberglass dormers that Welch and Shawn Rainey of Rainey Construction are installing above the fifth-floor windows, Finbar O’Neill said: “They’ll last at least a couple hundred more years.”

Standing at the top of the scaffolding, O’Neill grabbed the remaining piece of copper weather vane and tried to move it. The long-seized mechanism wouldn’t budge. He vowed to restore or replicate this and its sister piece atop the north stair tower.

Onekey plans three renovation phases for Ponemah No. 1, the largest building in the complex. The first phase, expected to be completed by October, occupies the southern half of the giant building. Workers installed a basement-to-roof concrete block wall to divide the building for the two phases. “It was a bear” putting the wall in, O’Neill said.

The 121-unit second phase will finish the northern half of the front of the main building.

A future 77-unit third phase would tackle a rear wing from the northern end that juts back to the Shetucket River. The basement houses a working hydropower plant not owned by Onekey. A concrete block wall would separate the plant from the housing above, O’Neill said. Riverfront townhouses are planned in two three-story buildings along the river.

In between, the courtyard and the former one-story, shipping-receiving building are being fitted out for attractive amenities. The building will house a community room and fitness center, complete with sauna, steam room and showers. Outside will be four pergolas with barbecue stations, a fire pit and picnic areas.

A newly constructed connector from the community center to the main building is concealed from view. About 120 rooftop air conditioning units, one for each apartment and for various common areas, sit on the rear roof also hidden from view.

Original ceilings, new floors

The guts of phase one apartments are nearly completed. Granite counter tops in large kitchens, hookups for stacked washer-dryer units, 40-gallon individual water heaters, spacious closets — some with the floor-to-ceiling mill windows for light — and distinct room shapes are among the features.

“We tried to work with the structure, to keep what’s here,” O’Neill said.

The roof above the fifth floor is supported by foot-thick diagonal wooden trusses that allowed Ponemah’s cotton cloth operation to run the length of the 750-foot long floor unhindered by support columns. Now, those beams run through living rooms and bathrooms and along walls. The beams will be sanded and sealed, retaining their appearance, O’Neill said.

Same for the original wooden ceilings on each floor. Apartment floors, however, are foam-cushioned Gyp Crete that deadens sound for tenants in apartments below.

One floor below, 22-foot high ceilings allow for loft bedrooms, with light pouring in from tall windows designed to provide light for mill workers in pre-electricity days. Instead of square beams, equally thick round wooden columns are visible on the lower floors. Narrower, modern steel support columns were encased within walls, O’Neill said.

The common hallways that run the length of the floors between apartments feature archways interjected to break up the monotony and continue the historical building theme, O’Neill said.

About 60 percent of the apartments will be affordable units, with rental prices set by state income guidelines. Ten units will be handicapped accessible. Prices for the market-rate units are not set yet, but O’Neill estimated a range of $750 to $950 for one-bedroom units, $850 to $1,250 for two bedrooms and about $1,500 for the several three-bedroom units.

Konover Residential Corp. is the leasing firm for the project, called The Lofts at Ponemah Mill. Property Manager Lynn Branciforte now works in a makeshift construction office. She looks forward to the opening of her new leasing office and a model apartment unit at the southern corner of the building in about a month.

‘A great neighbor’

The public is not yet allowed to visit the complex, but several city officials are frequent visitors, with weekly inspections as work progresses and monthly planning and training sessions hosted by the Taftville Volunteer Fire Department.

Taftville Fire Chief Timothy Jencks, too, grew up in Taftville and even worked in the Ponemah Mill for the company that owned the former Helikon Furniture.

“We’re patiently awaiting the opening of the project,” Jencks said in a cellphone interview last week. He was walking the grounds of the mill when he answered the call.

“It’s good to see something like this, the centerpiece of the village, rejuvenated and re-purposed,” he said. “I have a personal connection to the mill. I met my wife in the building, working for ICF Group. I’ve grown up in the shadow of this building my entire life.”

Jencks regularly hosts walking tours of Taftville, the next one slated for Sept. 9, a week before Taftville hosts the Connecticut State Firefighters Association Convention & Parade. Onekey is a corporate sponsor of the event that will bring hundreds of firefighters and trucks to town. Jencks also expects a call when O’Neill is ready to stock the museum. Jencks is a collector of Taftville memorabilia and even found a photo at a New Hampshire yard sale of the mill under construction.

“Fin’s such a great guy. He’s been a great neighbor,” Jencks said.

Norwich Public Utilities also has worked with Onekey on everything from replacing old steel natural gas lines to improving water lines and determining the best locations for the required electrical equipment, NPU spokesman Chris Riley said. Two of the four transformers needed for the mill have have been installed.

“We are very excited about this project and the economic impact it will have on Taftville, Norwich and the region,” Riley said.

O’Neill praised all city agencies, Hinchey and the City Council for their support for the project. The City Council approved a waiver of building permit fess in conjunction with the Mill Enhancement Plan several years ago and, in 2015, the council approved a 15-year property tax phase-in plan for the completed project. Onekey, under the mill ownership name Ponemah Riverbank LLC, pays full taxes, about $45,000 per year, on the pre-existing building’s assessment.

Taxes on the value of the improvements will be phased in, starting at 25 percent in each of the first years after completion, gradually increasing to full taxes after the 15th year.

“Without help, especially the state and federal historic tax credits,” O’Neill said, “it could not be done.”

 c.bessette@theday.com

Finbar O'Neill, director of operations with Onekey LLC, and Lynn Branciforte, property manager, stand in the room of an apartment during a tour Tuesday, May 2, 2017, of the renovations at the Ponemah Mill in Taftville. The first phase of the $28 million renovation to turn building one into 116 apartments is expected to be open this fall. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
Finbar O'Neill, director of operations with Onekey LLC, and Lynn Branciforte, property manager, stand in the room of an apartment during a tour Tuesday, May 2, 2017, of the renovations at the Ponemah Mill in Taftville. The first phase of the $28 million renovation to turn building one into 116 apartments is expected to be open this fall. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
Building 2 at the Ponemah Mill in Taftville is seen Tuesday, May 2, 2017, during a tour of the renovations.  The first phase of the renovations to turn Building 1 into 116 apartments is expected to be open this fall. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
Building 2 at the Ponemah Mill in Taftville is seen Tuesday, May 2, 2017, during a tour of the renovations. The first phase of the renovations to turn Building 1 into 116 apartments is expected to be open this fall. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)

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