Marina's future a challenge for Norwich

It was an audacious idea. When, in the mid-1980s, businessman Ron Aliano proposed building a high-end marina with a restaurant, a pool and other amenities on the Norwich waterfront, the adjacent downtown was arguably at its nadir, with vacant storefronts and slum-level apartment dwellings dominant.

And what of the waterfront Aliano envisioned as a marina? It was a dilapidated wharf, a leftover from the city’s industrial past. Ever the salesman, and willing to invest heavily in his dream, Aliano persuaded Norwich’s elected officials to get behind his vision of a beautiful marina that would persuade recreational boaters to make the long journey up the Thames River to moor their boats.

He did it. With the city remaining the owner of the land and renting the space to Aliano, he developed his Marina at American Wharf, which opened in 1989 and at its peak had upwards of 200 boat slips. Its brick promenade became a popular spot for community activities. The marina inspired the city to continue the waterfront revitalization with the development of the harborside Howard T. Brown Memorial Park.

Whatever he did, Aliano did to high standards, be it the One American Way facility, overlooking the harbor, that he opened in 1986 to house his American Ambulance company or his marina. One got the sense, however, that the marina was a labor of love rather than a source of profit for Aliano.

When Aliano died in 2009 at age 65, there were concerns about the future of American Wharf. Aliano would not be happy to see what has become of the place.

We will let a boat owner who has leased docking space for several years from the present owner, Joyal Capital Management, explain.

“Right now, we have no restaurant, no gas, deteriorating facilities. The pool, OK they opened it, just because they got the pump working. But there’s been no repairs done to the concrete surrounding the pool. It’s got cracks, it’s got craters, the pool furniture is falling apart. It’s a disgrace,” Robert Groner told the City Council Monday.

Tanks to fuel boats were removed, as required because of their age, but never replaced. Some structures are reportedly leaking. Wooden decking is broken.

On Monday the council voted 6-0 to put the marina owner on notice that the city would find the group in default unless corrections are made. The owner has 30 days to catch up on rent payments of $5,000 per year dating back to 2012 and 45 days to begin work on improvements.

Hope may spring eternal, but a company that is unwilling to fork over a rather paltry $5,000 rent annually to the city seems unlikely to make the kind of investments necessary to restore the marina. JCM has tried to sell but has not found a buyer to its liking.

In a letter from JCM to the city obtained by The Day, the company contends it is not obligated to provide any unpaid rent prior to 2017 because at that time the city manager certified that the tenant was “current on the payment of rent.” The 2018 rent, it states, was paid.

The company also disputes that it is obligated to replace the fuel tanks and argues that the characterizations of the marina as in poor condition are overstated. JCM has invested substantially in its maintenance since taking control in 2011, the letter to the city maintains.

JCM further states in the letter signed by its attorney, Glenn T. Carberry, that it wants the city to work with it in finding a buyer rather than declaring it in default.

The problem may well be that the marina is no longer viable as the business Aliano once envisioned. We suspect that if the owner was persuaded there was money to be made, it would be investing. Or, at least, a valid buyer would come forward.

What may well be needed is a new vision by the city. Pending are plans by Mohegan Gaming & Entertainment to transform the former Norwich Hospital campus — nearby in Preston and across the Thames River from the tribe’s Mohegan Sun casino — into a multiuse recreational, housing and retail development. Perhaps the marina, which is adjacent to an underused parking garage/transportation facility, could serve as a waterborne connector to that eventual development.

Finding a viable future for the property should be a shared goal of the operator and city.

What the city cannot afford is to let enmity and a legal fight contribute to a continued deterioration that would make selling, restoration or reuse that much more difficult.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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