Preston takes over at hospital site

Preston - A year ago, the town took possession of the former Norwich State Hospital property from the state for $1, with the agreement that the state would pay for security, insurance and maintenance for a full year.

On Friday, the state assistance ended and the Preston Redevelopment Agency will now take charge of the 390-acre property.

"Next year is a year where we hopefully will start cleaning up the property, demolishing some of the buildings, and I hope we get interest from developers," First Selectmen Robert Congdon said. "It will be a very, very busy year going forward."

The town formed the Preston Redevelopment Agency last April. Since then, Chairman Kent Borner said, the 11-member group has spent an estimated 4,500 hours on the site plan, the proposed budget, seeking developers and other aspects of the redevelopment plan.

"Our biggest crowning glory was the crafting and completion of the redevelopment plan," Borner said. "People really don't understand it fully. We did it all."

The agency will now begin to keep track of their volunteer hours spent working on the redevelopment project. In the budget expenses, the agency has planned for around 8,060 volunteer man hours which equals 20 hours per week for each PRA member.

On Feb. 25 residents voted at a town meeting to pass the redevelopment plan and a revised ordinance to allow the PRA to execute the financial and management responsibilities outlined in the plan.

After the required 15-day waiting period, the redevelopment agency now has the powers and duties outlined in the plan and becomes a full-fledged agency with all the responsibilities that come with it.

Waitte, Moran, Charron & Delaney Insurance were selected to provide insurance on the site for $43,795 per year, with the policy being written from March 12, 2010 to June 30, 2010. The agency has also decided to extend the security presence on site at a cost no greater than the state paid.

Developer search

The saga of the property began 14 years ago when Norwich Hospital, a state institution for the mentally ill, closed its doors. The state tried unsuccessfully to market the property and then offered Preston the chance to find a developer.

Six years ago, Preston began talks with Utopia Studios Ltd. The town eventually decided not to approve Utopia's $1.6 billion plan for an entertainment, education and residential complex.

In 2008, Northland Investment Corp. and Preston Gateway Partners LLC each sought approval to develop the site. Northland beat out PGP with a billion-dollar luxury resort proposal, but negotiations ended in October 2008. Since then, eight developers have expressed interest.

After making use of three $200,000 state grants, the town is in the process of applying for $500,000 from the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development. The application is due June 1.

The redevelopment agency is also awaiting the arrival of the salvage and demolition price estimates, which were requested in the beginning of March.

"Within the next two to three months, I hope and anticipate that we'll have some developers coming forth," Borner said.

His other immediate hope is to have a demolition and salvage contractor on site in that time frame.

'Broke' across the board

Not everyone is hopeful. Board of Finance member Jerry Grabarek said he believes that the redevelopment project may bankrupt the town.

"We're broke at a national level, we're broke at a state level and we're broke at a local level. We're just broke at all levels. That's the problem," he said.

Gail Rigney, the town's parks and recreation director and a member of the Conservation Commission, shares the same financial concerns.

Rigney suggests a small project that won't cost the town a lot and will benefit the people - for example, conserving the woods as open space and creating a small public access park for bird-watching, fishing and picnics.

"That way, the people in town can feel invested in the property and make part it of their own," she said. "I hope we don't have to sell out just to survive the next five to 10 years. If we make it past 10 years, hopefully we'll be developing by (year) 15."

Congdon believes that "the sooner this property can become a positive asset to the town, the better."

"We want to make sure that we plan the development properly and that it is a sustainable development that creates jobs and tax revenue for years to come," he said.

Borner added, "The town should be proud of their purchase. It's been a very long process, but we're finally free and clear to do with what we want on the site. The town has the ultimate approval on whatever gets done there."

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