Pawcatuck Thread Mill building project starting up

An employee of New England Sandblasting LLC, based in Wareham, Mass., pushes a shovel of debris on the third floor of the Thread Mill apartments, after a groundbreaking ceremony on River Road in Pawcatuck.
An employee of New England Sandblasting LLC, based in Wareham, Mass., pushes a shovel of debris on the third floor of the Thread Mill apartments, after a groundbreaking ceremony on River Road in Pawcatuck.

Ken Olson, the president of POKO Partners, keeps two words on his desk: "relentless pursuit."

Those words would also describe his firm's 10-year effort to renovate the Thread Mill in Pawcatuck, despite the recession and challenges involved in putting together the financing for the $25 million project.

Last week, POKO held a ceremony attended by state and local officials to formally break ground on the project that will transform the dilapidated 19th-century mill into 58 one- and two- bedroom apartments, 30 percent of which will be affordable under state guidelines, as well as 9,000 square feet of commercial space. Work on the site began earlier this fall.

"This project has been a long time coming," Olson told the group gathered next to the River Road mill. "We are very, very excited about this project and what it will do for this community."

Later as they toured the third floor with its rows of 15-foot high windows and where sandblasting has revealed pristine wooden ceilings, beams and support posts along with brick walls, Olson said his firm had the "horrible timing" of trying to start work on the project as the recession hit. The town approved permits for the work in 2006.

"But we were big believers in this project. We love historic preservation and adaptive reuse," he said. "It's a complicated structure but fortunately we have great partners and we finally got everything in place."

Representatives of many of those partners were on hand at the Dec.11 groundbreaking, including the state Department of Housing, state Department of Economic and Community Development, Connecticut Housing Finance Authority, state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and state Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington.

POKO has obtained tax-exempt, low-interest bonds from CHFA, state and federal tax credits, $750,000 in state brownfields funding, as well as funding from the state's Competitive Housing Assistance for Multifamily Properties.

In November, Stonington voters overwhelmingly approved a seven-year property tax abatement for the project. The project will be assessed at its current value of $569,400 plus 7 to 49 percent of the value of new construction over seven years. The tax abatement would begin with the earlier of the Oct. 1, 2016 grand list or when the first certificate of occupancy is issued by the town.

Olson called the project a true example of public-private partnership.

Evonne Klein, the commissioner of the state Department of Housing, called it a great day as POKO will preserve the history of the building and its unique charm while bringing it bringing it into the 21st century.

Dara Kovel, the chief housing officer for CHFA, said affordable housing projects such as this one "are often a long, arduous process."

"This is going to be really wonderful housing," she said.

Olson thanked Urban for stepping up and helping "push the project across the finish line" when it encountered some challenges with the state.

Acting First Selectman George Crouse thanked Olson for coming to town and taking on the project.

"This is one of the best sites on the (Pawcatuck) River and it's going to be a great asset for our town," he said.

Selectman Rob Simmons said the Thread Mill is one of the earliest examples in New England of a mill powered by steam engines which were fueled by coal brought up the Pawcatuck River and unloaded across the street.

"So this is a very unique and historic building that's going to have a new use thanks to POKO Partners," he said.

Both Crouse and Simmons told Olson they are looking forward to returning to the site to celebrate its opening when the project is complete in 18 months.

Olson said apartments will appeal to older people looking to downsize from their homes and young professionals. He sees a deli or marine supply store for the commercial space.

The Thread Mill is the only one of three mill renovations project approved by the town just before the recession hit, that have come to fruition. The other two, the Connecticut Casting Mill and the former Mystic Color Lab have stalled for various reasons.

J.WOJTAS@THEDAY.COM

@JOEWOJTAS

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