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Preston at crossroads on cleanup at former hospital site

Preston - Neither the chairman of the Preston Redevelopment Agency nor others involved in the Norwich Hospital property cleanup project would say Wednesday what options the town might have after voters rejected an $8 million financial package that included a $4 million low-cost state loan and a matching
$4 million town bond.

The defeat of the measure also cost the town a $964,000 federal Economic Development Administration grant that required a local match.

A series of back-to-back meetings tonight at Town Hall will take up the question of what comes next.

The redevelopment agency will start the discussion with a special meeting at 5 p.m., followed at 6 p.m. by a Board of Finance special meeting preceding the regularly scheduled selectmen's meeting at 6:30 p.m.

The deadline for accepting the federal grant would have been Saturday, while the town has until Jan. 1 to match the state loan. Town officials would not say whether they will attempt a second referendum in December to try to match the state loan proposal.

If not, the remaining balance from federal and state environmental abatement and demolition grants are expected to be used up sometime in January. Without prospects of future funding, the town's demolition contractor, Manafort Bros., could depart the former state hospital campus, taking the company's security fence, security staff and cameras, First Selectman Robert Congdon said, and leaving those costs to the town.

PRA members Jim Bell and Frank Ennis will meet this afternoon with officials from Manafort and will report that information to the agency tonight, Chairman Sean Nugent said.

The PRA will apply for three new federal Environmental Protection Agency brownfields grants for future cleanup. These grants would total $200,000 each and would be applied to specific parcels on the hospital property.

Nugent said the EPA grants must be confined to specifically defined buildings, thus limiting them to smaller and less contaminated buildings on the hospital property.

The rejected $8 million loan package proposal would have funded demolition of the largest buildings on campus, including the Kettle and Lodge buildings.

Congdon expressed skepticism Wednesday as to whether state and federal agencies would look favorably on Preston's future grants.

"I'd be very surprised, given the state of the economy, if the state or federal government is going to give funding to a community that is not willing to invest in itself," Congdon said.

Congdon and others attributed the referendum defeat to a campaign against the loan package in the final weekend before the vote by four members of the Board of Finance - Jerry Grabarek, Norman Gauthier, Ken Zachem and Andrew Bilodeau - a majority of the six-member board.

Longtime board Chairman Robert Maurice resigned Tuesday in frustration over the negative campaigning. The finance board will discuss the vacancy tonight. State law calls for the board to appoint a replacement to serve until the next regular election. The board also will discuss the DECD loan and grants tonight.


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