Norwich aldermen not yet ready to commit to $8.4 million bond

Norwich — It has been more than two weeks since the City Council heard a presentation on a proposed $8.4 million economic revitalization bond, and aldermen still question how it would work, why the high amount, why now or even why at all.

The City Council scheduled a public hearing for Aug. 20 on an ordinance to bond $8.4 million “economic revitalization initiative to spur economic development.” The bond would expand a $3.38 million downtown revitalization program voters approved in 2010.

A two-thirds majority vote in favor, or at least five of the seven City Council members, is required to forward the ordinance to referendum Nov. 6.

Norwich Community Development Corp. President Robert Mills presented the new 10-year plan to the council July 24. The funds would be divided into five programs: $4.15 million for building code upgrades; $2.96 million for commercial rent subsidies; $890,000 for “city guided development"; $350,000 for facade improvements and $120,000 for signage.

Half of the new bond would be dedicated to continuing downtown work and half for properties in designated areas. The ordinance listed city borders, the new Norwichtown Village Overlay District, future village districts, enterprise zones, the new federal Opportunity Zones, mill reuse and manufacturing zones.

Several aldermen last week questioned the $8.4 million total, the projected 18.5 percent administration fee and whether the downtown program was successful. Some asked why the rush to put it on the Nov. 6 ballot.

As part of their homework, aldermen have sent questions and concerns to Mills and lead proponent Mayor Peter Nystrom, and they have met with Mills.

“I’m not in favor of it,” Alderwoman Joanne Philbrick said. “I think it’s really too large an item with too short notice. I don’t understand why we have to do it now. I don’t understand why the rush. I understand they want to get it on the November ballot. I just don’t see the need.”

Philbrick questioned NCDC's calculation that the downtown bond has generated a $22.7 million economic return and, if true, why half of the new bond would be for downtown. Mills said downtown still has 46 buildings more than half-vacant, with 700,000 square feet of vacant or underutilized space.

Alderwoman Stephanie Burnham submitted questions to NCDC. “I don’t know if it’s ready for the November ballot,” she said.

Alderman William Nash said he supports the concept and said the 2010 bond “has done some good downtown.” Nash suggested cutting the total by $2 million to make it more reasonable but agreed Norwich needs to invest in itself.

“We need to put skin in the game,” he said. “It is a big bite, though.”

Alderman Samuel Browning said the July 24 presentation was thin on substance. He, too, sent written questions to NCDC prior to meeting with Mills. Alderwoman Stacy Gould and Joseph DeLucia met with Mills last week.

Browning questioned the $2.9 million for rental subsidies. He said businesses that need subsidies might not be strong enough to survive. He wanted more information on lessons learned, good and bad, of the downtown program before more than doubling it.

“They bring it to us basically in the last month of consideration,” Browning said. “The bond has been in existence for eight years. We should have been doing this in March. The mayor says we can propose changes. So, in two weeks' time, we’re supposed to essentially create our own bond package?”

Nystrom said the urgency is to take advantage of the “window of opportunity” with state economy improving, and the Mohegan tribe's proposed $200 million to $600 million development of the former Norwich Hospital property in Preston is on the horizon.

The new bond would cover the nearly 50-acre former Norwich Hospital property in Norwich at the Preston line, owned by a private developer. The downtown bond also likely will be depleted before its projected 10-year period.

“You have to capitalize,” Nystrom said. “Go to the voters and ask for support.”

Aldermen asked to better define the $890,000 City Guided Development program. Mills said it could apply to city-owned or privately owned problem properties, such as the vacant former YMCA on Main Street, the Norwich marina, Norwich Hospital and the long-vacant Flatiron building on Main Street.

The money could be used to hire technical specialists to determine best uses for properties. Mills described a “carrot and stick” approach to work with owners to develop properties that have been stagnant for years or decades.

“This is a long-term strategy,” Mills said, “an effort to guide development toward what the city wants to see happen with those properties.”


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