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    Friday, April 19, 2024

    1870 Ponemah Mill will see new life as apartments

    Officials from Onekey LLC, the Norwich Community Development Corporation and the City of Norwich listen to quick remarks by property owner Paula O'Neill, right, as they gather for the official ground breaking ceremony for phase 1 of the Ponemah Mill renovation project at the historic mill in Norwich Tuesday, May 10, 2016. (Tim Cook/The Day)
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    Norwich — Echoes of the past and a vision for the future dominated Tuesday's groundbreaking ceremony at the massive 1870 Ponemah Mill, once the largest cotton manufacturing plant in the world.

    The historic mill village seen from the commanding fifth floor once housed thousands of French Canadian workers, who labored 10- to 12-hour days with the din of massive machinery.

    But Robert Mills, president of the Norwich Community Development Corp., reminded more than 50 people in attendance Tuesday that it was thousands of Irish workers who provided the inaugural Taftville workforce before an “economic upheaval” in the 1870s displaced them.

    “We're back!” Finn O'Neill announced, with an Irish drawl. O'Neill is director of operations for New Jersey-based developer Onekey LLC's $30 million project to create 116 apartments in just half of the sprawling 313,000-square-foot building.

    O'Neill and his wife, Paula O'Neill, Onekey president and owner, said they fell in love with the enormous Ponemah complex on the Shetucket River when they first saw it a dozen years ago.

    “It was our dream when we first saw it,” Paula O'Neill said. “Finally, our dream has come true. We love old, historic buildings, and the riverfront is beautiful.”

    It took more than a dream to bring the project together. Mills, whose agency helped coordinate numerous financial planning meetings, estimated about 10 to 12 funding sources were needed. In the end, the fledgling state Department of Housing filled the financing gap with the final $5 million loan. The project qualified for $7 million in federal and state historic preservation tax credits.

    The Lofts at Ponemah Mill, under the ownership name Ponemah Riverbank LLC, also received $8.25 million in tax-exempt bonds from the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority and $1 million in Low Income Housing Tax Credits. About 60 percent of the units will be priced as affordable.

    Mills credited the “stick-to-it-iveness” of the developers for Tuesday's success story.

    Attorney Louis Kaufman added thanks to NCDC and numerous city and state officials, especially Mayor Deberey Hinchey for tirelessly lobbying for the project in Hartford and in meetings with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.

    “I think they helped us, because they just wanted me to go away. 'Oh God! That woman,'” Hinchey said of their likely reaction when she called or visited again and again.

    Hinchey, a career clinical social worker, recalled being fascinated by stories of mill working days when she provided home care for elderly Taftville residents. When she heard the O'Neills' vision for the mill during a frosty winter tour, she vowed to help.

    Long before the financing was in place to launch the project, Onekey had invested about $8 million in the building, Paula O'Neill said, shoring up its structure and doing environmental cleanup.

    That allowed construction to move quickly on the estimated 18-month first phase, which will include a large community room with a kitchen, theater seating and large screen TV and outdoor landscaping. An exhibit on the history of the mill and village — including some of the hundreds of photos by the late Taftville historian Rene Dugas — will occupy one of the landmark stair towers.

    Before the speaking program ended, Onekey attorney Kaufman invited guests to return for a future groundbreaking for the planned second phase, 121 units in the other half of the building.

    About a dozen attendees boarded a rustic industrial lift to the fourth and fifth floors to see work in progress. On the fifth floor, over-sized 14-by-18-inch chestnut beams support the roof. The design allowed mill owners to operate the largest cotton loom operation in the world the full length of the 750-foot-long building.

    Now, the polished, exposed beams will frame split-level, open-loft apartments, each with at least two giant replica mill windows that look out at the village or the rear mill wings and river. A third phase would add apartments to the rear wings along the riverbank, Finn O'Neill said.

    “I think this project will change the way Taftville is seen around the country,” Hinchey said.

    c.bessette@theday.com

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