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    Sunday, June 23, 2024

    OPINION: Mayor suggests New London could use receivership law to take collapsed church

    Anthony Greco, with New London Public Works, secures fencing with zip ties Friday, Feb. 2, 2024, around the demolition site of the former First Congregational Church in New London. The church collapsed on January 25 and public works was preparing to open State Street for the first time since the collapse. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Let’s be honest: New London, the little Connecticut city I love, has a downtown blight problem it hasn’t been able to lick.

    It’s true that some encouraging recent developments, including many new apartments and restaurants, have brought a lot of excitement to downtown, which looks better and more promising than it has in decades.

    If you haven’t been lately, I’d encourage a visit. It’s way more interesting and complex than downtown Mystic. There is live entertainment at a historic arts center and new art galleries opening.

    It’s an urban hub of the region, filled with magnificent historic buildings along a working waterfront, and its strength enriches all of us.

    The city has done a good job of masquerading the lingering blight, but it is certainly there, long sections of streetscape with the windows of abandoned, empty buildings blacked out.

    The newest, perhaps most striking eyesore downtown is the hulking granite remains of the former First Congregational Church on State Street, which collapsed suddenly in January.

    I think, each time I pass by, that the fence now screening the enormous mountain of rubble on the site, immediately adjacent to City Hall, isn’t cutting it any more.

    Plans need to be made soon to finally clear the site and move on from the catastrophe. It’s blight on steroids.

    I don’t know about others, but I didn’t take much solace from a recent news story in which Mayor Michael Passero suggested that some developers are interested in the property and might eventually buy and clean it up.

    I’ll cross my fingers for that. But it sounds like more hope than planning.

    One significant problem is that the owner, Engaging Heaven Ministries, hasn’t been very forthcoming with the public. And a sale now depends on the cooperation of the Florida-based group.

    Indeed, the head of the church said after the collapse that the building was insured, when it wasn’t. The church has promised to reimburse the city for cleanup expenses, but so far hasn’t paid a dime.

    The city put a lien on the property, to make sure it is reimbursed.

    Meanwhile, the church has been trying to raise money off the disaster, saying it needs to raise funds to rebuild.

    In addition to the $240,00 lien by the city, there is also a remaining balance from the mortgage given by the former Congregational congregation, which sold the church in 2015 for $250,000.

    The $250,000, 30-year-mortgage had monthly payments of $1,679.61, according to land records. A spokesperson for the congregationalists said the payments were current at the time of the collapse.

    That’s money expected up front from any buyer before Engaging Heaven takes what it may believe it has in equity in the property. And then a buyer has to clean it up before building anything.

    What’s a building lot on State Street worth?

    I was encouraged that the mayor, when asked, indicated he is indeed prepared to take some legal steps to intercede, in the event the city needs to move the process along.

    The mayor was given credit for pushing the region’s legislative delegation last year to change a law allowing municipalities to take blighted buildings into receivership to include smaller cities like New London.

    The bill, with other tighter penalties for blight, passed, and Passero, when I asked, said he would consider it one more option to keep the church cleanup progressing.

    The law would allow the city to petition Superior Court to give it control and management of a blighted building.

    “If a development deal, that would include the immediate cleanup of the property, is not struck in a reasonable amount of time, the receivership statute that was expanded in the last legislative session … could be an additional tool in our tool bag,” Passero said in an email.

    That’s good to know. I hope a “reasonable amount of time” is soon. I hope the Florida church leaders are listening.

    And I hope the mayor considers using that tool box elsewhere in town, where more than a reasonable amount of time has passed for owners to clean up their blighted, empty buildings.

    Maybe the collapsed church can be the beginning of a rebirth of what has been the worst of blighted New London.

    This is the opinion of David Collins.

    d.collins@theday.com

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