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Preston — This was a night to break the rules, Preston Redevelopment Agency Chairman Sean Nugent said, filling tiny plastic glasses with champagne not normally allowed at Town Hall.
Nugent nearly choked up with emotion when he asked the overflow crowd in the small Town Hall conference room to raise their glasses in toasts.
Thanks went to the residents of Preston, to First Selectman Robert Congdon for his leadership, to the state officials who supported the town and to themselves, the PRA members who gave up hundreds of hours of their time to the tedious task of seeing the former Norwich Hospital property cleaned up and readied for development.
"This is a historic moment for the townsfolks. This is a historic moment for the region. This is a historic moment for the state of Connecticut," Nugent said.
Ten minutes earlier, election moderators read the results of Tuesday's referendum, which overwhelmingly approved the sale of the former Norwich Hospital property to the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority, 813 to 137.
It was one of the highest voter turnouts in recent years.
The tribal authority plans a $200 million to $600 million development to create a major recreational, entertainment, sports and residential complex on the 388-acre property over a five-year period. Preston must first finish the environmental cleanup, using a $10 million state grant already approved in February.
Cleanup is expected to take about a year.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy — the first governor to visit the former Norwich Hospital property since it closed under former Gov. John G. Rowland in 1996 — will return to Preston Wednesday for a 12:15 p.m. agreement signing ceremony outside the historic original campus building, the Administration Building.
The ceremony is open to the public. Nugent said guests will be directed where to park and how to get to the signing site.
"Thank you to the residents of Preston, First Selectman Congdon, and the Preston Redevelopment Agency for welcoming us to the Preston community and for believing and trusting in us," said Kevin Brown, chairman of the Mohegan tribe and MTGA Management Board, in a news release issued after the vote.
Brown added: "We look forward to a long future together and to developing a project that will not only make Preston residents proud, but will strengthen the local economy and the state as a whole."
Town leaders thanked the voters first for taking the "tremendous" risk in 2009 to take ownership of the property, Congdon said. Without that decision, Congdon said, the sprawling former state mental institution still would be a contaminated brownfield with dozens of decaying, abandoned buildings.
Through the redevelopment authority, the town obtained about $15 million in state and federal grants and loans, cleaned and demolished all but 10 structures and aggressively marketed the property to potential developers.
Congdon and Nugent thanked regional economic development leaders and agencies, the state Department of Economic and Community Development and, of course, Mohegan tribal leaders. Congdon's first phone call was to Tim Sullivan, DECD deputy commissioner.
Major proposals came and went — most notably Utopia Studios — before the town reached a tentative agreement with the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority last May. The 150-page agreement released in March listed specific development proposals laid out in a conceptual master plan encompassing nearly the entire property.
A 100,000-square-foot outdoor theme park with indoor attractions and a 90,000-square-foot indoor water park with outdoor attractions and a 100-room luxury hotel are proposed on the east side of Route 12.
A 135,000-square-foot sports complex with a 100-room hotel and a 100,000-square-foot sports retail store also are shown on the east side of Route 12.
A marina with approximately 50 boat slips is planned for the Thames River. Overlooking the river would be 100 time-share residential units and a 220,000-square-foot senior housing complex.
And up the hill on the east side of Route 12, the plan calls for a year-round synthetic ski facility, an RV park and "glamour camping" facility.
State restrictions and the proposed agreement both prohibit the tribe from building gambling facilities on the property and from attempting to take the land into trust as tax-free. The town added a provision that the tribe waive its sovereign immunity from legal challenges if issues arise on the property in the future.
While Preston voters had the final say on whether to approve the agreement Tuesday, the redevelopment authority still needed to take a quick formal vote following the referendum — and the champagne toasts — to adopt the document.
The meeting wasn't quite over, however. When Nugent asked for public comment, resident Michael Clancy raised his hand and his glass and asked everyone to stand.
"I'd like us all to raise a glass to Sean Nugent," Clancy said. "He did a terrific job."
Nugent thanked the gathering and called for the meeting to be adjourned.
"Enjoy the night," Nugent said to fellow authority members. "The real work starts tomorrow, folks."