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NCDC President Robert Mills to retire in July

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Norwich — Norwich Community Development Corp. President Robert Mills will retire from the economic development agency July 31 after 12 years, reducing the agency’s staff to one full-time person.

Mills, 67, announced his retirement following the NCDC board of directors video conference meeting Thursday. The board met for an hour in executive session to discuss a personnel matter and did not discuss Mills’ departure in open session. The board has been discussing his position in executive session for the past several months. He said he has been working on a retirement plan for the past two years.

Mills' departure will leave Senior Vice President Jason Vincent as the sole full-time staff member and apparent successor to Mills at NCDC and its Foundry 66 co-workspace. Vice President and Community Manager Jill Fritzsche left May 15 to become Killingly economic development director.

The proposed 2020-21 NCDC budget presented Thursday lists only $128,784 for salaries — Vincent's salary and one month of Mills' salary. Vincent told the board NCDC will use part-time consultants on specific projects and will install a digital calendar at the Foundry 66 entrance to direct visitors to meeting rooms, which will be clearly labeled.

NCDC board Chairman Robert Buckley said later Thursday the board has long intended to elevate Vincent to NCDC president upon Mills' departure. He said the transition has been in the works for 18 months. The board plans to replace Fritzsche's position with two part-time employees, each assigned to different tasks: one to operate Foundry 66 and one to work with Vincent on economic development issues.

“It just feels like the right time,” Mills said later Thursday. “It feels good to me.”

Mills said his son, Kevin Mills, will open Niantic Home Maintenance, a home improvements business, this summer, and the elder Mills will help him get started. Kevin Mills has worked for Clinton Glass doing replacement windows and for Prime Electric in Norwich on underground utility work, his father said.

“My goal is to work with him to get him set up and running and help him out with the finer points of being an entrepreneur,” Robert Mills said.

He said he also might do part-time economic development consulting on specific projects or issues.

“I love eastern Connecticut, so I’d like to stay on this side of the river,” Mills said. “I spent half my career on this side of the river.”

Mills started at NCDC in August 2008 when NCDC rented a small office on Main Street. He “inherited” the controversial intermodal Norwich Transportation Center project, a three-story parking garage and Southeast Area Transit hub on Falls Avenue near Norwich Harbor. The $22 million center has been underutilized and criticized over the years.

Mills said establishing Foundry 66, which rents a range of office space to entrepreneurs and nonprofit agencies, was one of NCDC’s top accomplishments during his tenure. The facility opened in late 2016 in the former Norwich Bulletin building at 66 Franklin St. Under Fritzsche’s management, it expanded to the second floor and opened a retail wing in the attached Sunshine Building.

Foundry 66 currently is closed to the public under COVID-19 precautions. Customers are allowed in by appointment. But during the closure, Foundry 66 has signed up three new businesses.

“I’m very proud of what we have been able to accomplish in Norwich,” Mills said. “I’m anxious to see how Foundry just blossoms after (COVID-19). Every urban center is investigating it. And we’ve had six property owners around the state ask us how we did it.”

Mills said he worked to make sure Norwich remained at the forefront in the region, with agencies such as the Southeastern Connecticut Enterprise Region and the Eastern Connecticut Association of Realtors.

NCDC also administers the taxpayer-approved $3.38 million downtown revitalization program, a series of matching grants and loans to downtown property owners who renovate and lease their buildings.

Mills called the $60 million renovation of the historic Ponemah Mill complex in Taftville “the crown jewel” of his tenure. He credited developer OneKey LLC for sticking with the complicated project and financial pieces needed. As a nonprofit agency, NCDC became the administrator of various grants, loans and historic tax credits the project used to renovate the giant mill into more than 300 apartments.

The Ponemah first phase with 116 apartments is open, and the second phase with 121 units is nearing completion. Developers hope to finalize financing for the third phase this summer.

Vincent told the NCDC board Thursday the agency will assist in applying to the state Department of Economic and Community Development for a brownfields remediation grant to continue the project. Federal and state tax credit applications for the third phase also are in progress.

“I feel good about Jason,” Mills said. “He will push and reason things out and not take no for an answer. Being a leader in economic development is just not comfortable.”

c.bessette@theday.com

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