Important decision looms for Preston

Preston voters will soon face the most important decision about the former Norwich Hospital property since voting in 2009 to take possession of it from the state. That a town board came precariously close to denying the people the opportunity to make that decision is troubling.

In the end, however, the Board of Finance did the right thing. At issue is whether the town should authorize borrowing $8 million to continue with the cleanup of the 393-acre property. It's a complicated deal, but in essence town leaders will be asking voters to use a $4 million town match to provide a $9 million remedial cleanup.

Before sending the proposal to a referendum, however, a Board of Finance recommendation was necessary. A majority of the board members opposed the city's decision to take possession of the property to begin with, a decision approved in a close vote. And that majority was uncomfortable with having to "recommend" more borrowing, a necessary step to proceeding to a town vote.

Their reluctance is understandable. This newspaper recommended against the small town of Preston taking on the liability of owning, cleaning up and trying to market the large former hospital campus with its pollution problems and many aging, weakening structures. But the town now owns it. There is no going back. Voters deserve the chance to make the decision on whether to borrow to try to move development efforts forward. And getting hung up on the semantics of having to "recommend" it to referendum was not reason enough to disenfranchise the people.

Fortunately, the board ultimately made the right decision, voting 4-2 Tuesday to move the process forward. On Nov. 15 there will be an informational town meeting, followed by a Nov. 27 vote.

As for the deal itself, it is likely the best opportunity the town will get to raze and environmentally clean up the largest buildings remaining on the sprawling campus, which once housed thousands of people with mental illness. While not enough to complete the cleanup, the funding will get much of it done and vastly improve the marketability of the property.

Town officials have negotiated a good deal with the state Department of Economic and Community Development. The town would not have to start paying on a $4 million state loan for five years. The rate is an attractive 1.5 percent. And for every 100 jobs created because of future development of the property, the state will forgive $1 million of the loan, potentially the entire loan if 400 jobs result.

To get this $4 million development loan the town must provide $4 million in bonding. That's a fair local commitment to demand on behalf of state taxpayers. And the $8 million state/local loan package will attract another $1 million in funding from the U.S. Economic Development Administration.

The Preston Redevelopment Agency has done an impressive job working towards the development of the renamed Preston Riverwalk property. It has obtained about $4 million in state and federal grants and demolished and environmentally abated 22 buildings. It has proved that given the resources it can get the job done.

Yes, there is a risk. Even with the planned cleanup, there is no guarantee the town can sell and develop the property or even portions of it. This would leave the town with a large loan to pay with no new revenue resources to help. Yet even then, the town will have an important property suited for development.

And there is a cost of inaction. With no further remediation there is likely no future development, and so no new property tax revenue. The town would have to secure and provide security for the large, deteriorating former hospital buildings, Liability insurance costs will continue to rise.

These are among the reasons The Day urged the town not to take responsibility for this property. But it has and now it needs to give town officials the tools to finish the job.

The editorial board is composed of the publisher and four journalists of varied editing and reporting backgrounds. The board's discussions and information gained from its meetings with political, civic, and business leaders drive the institutional voice of The Day, as expressed in its editorials. The editorial department operates separately from the newsroom.


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