Congdon's big gamble 10 years on

A decade ago, Preston First Selectman Robert Congdon made a courageous move. Or a foolish one, depending on one’s opinion at the time. He was serving in his 7th two-year term and his Great White Whale — getting the long-abandoned Norwich State Hospital property developed — still eluded him.

Ten years later, as he prepares to leave office, Congdon has still not landed the whale. But the town is close. It will fall to his successor, if it happens

The nearly 400-acre property has a winning location. It has easy access to Interstate 395, is located on the banks of the Thames River, and is across that river from one of the largest casinos in the world — Mohegan Sun.

Yet in 2009, location, location, location had not been enough to convince a developer, at least one with the actual wherewithal for the task, to take on the unknown liability of getting the property in shape to develop. There was the daunting prospect of cleaning up a century of accumulated pollutants. Of razing — or saving — the dozens of structures in various degrees of disrepair, buildings constructed to warehouse thousands of individuals judged by society, in other eras, to be mentally ill.

It was a place most popular with ghost hunters.

The problem, Congdon concluded, was the state. It would never devote the necessary attention to make the property attractive to a potential developer.

So that year, 2009, Congdon urged voters in the small, rural town of about 4,600 to approve buying the massive campus from the state for $1 and set about the task of finding a way to clean it up, land a developer and get it on the town tax rolls.

Count us among those who thought the idea foolish. Our editorial urged voters to reject the purchase, which we saw as a bailout for the state with little upside for the town. The task for little Preston was too great, or so we argued.

But voters sided with their first selectman in that February 2009 referendum, approving the purchase 608-564.

Looking back, Congdon concedes that after the results his stomach was churning as he confronted the responsibility to make the gamble work.

“That was probably one of the toughest decisions … not only for myself but for the voters of Preston. I had a lot of sleepless nights. We knew how big a hill that would be. Well, we thought we knew how big a hill that would be. It was a much bigger than we even expected it to be, I think,” Congdon said.

Congdon talked about this biggest decision of his time in office during an interview in which he reflected on his long service to Preston. After 12 terms and 24 years he did not seek re-election. Democrat Sandra Allyn-Gauthier replaces him this week as first selectman.

The frugal-minded Republican — some might call him cheap, he concedes — found a willing partner in Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who agreed to direct millions of dollars in grants to assist Preston in cleaning up the property. Volunteers serving on the town’s redevelopment agency tackled the challenge, finding contractors willing to demolish the buildings in return for the materials, seeking out grants, designing a development plan. It was small-town, can-do spirit.

Congdon says the town has about $2.5 million in debt tied to its own investment in the property, relabeled Riverwalk.

In May 2016 the Mohegan tribe, looking to expand entertainment offerings in the face of increased casino competition, announced its interest in obtaining and investing upwards of $600 million in development of the property. A few months later came the details about a mixed-use development including a marina, hotel, sports complex, large retail center, senior housing and indoor and outdoor recreational facilities.

Yet getting over the final hurdle, a full environmental cleanup or, at least, a plan to address it, has stalled development. That cost is now projected at $9 million, expected to be covered with a $2 million low-interest loan the town previously had received from the state and a $7 million state grant, if approved.

“I firmly believe that if we didn’t buy it that property would sit there and nothing would happen to it in my lifetime. And I think that’s played out with every other (surplus) property that the state has. It’s not a priority for them to clean up their messes,” Congdon said.

While disappointed he won’t be in the first selectman’s seat when it happens, Congdon expressed confidence that it won’t be too long before the dream of developing the old hospital property is realized, with the potential to more than double Preston’s tax base.

“I think it is going to be a fun time to be first selectman of Preston,” he said with a smile.

For the sake of his successor, for the town, for the many volunteers who worked so hard and gave up so many nights working for the property’s redevelopment, but most of all for Congdon, who refused to give up through so many ups and downs, I hope he is right.

Even though we urged him not to make it, my new bet is that Congdon’s long-ago gamble will finally pay off.

Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.



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