Norwich Mayor Hinchey ready to return to private life
Norwich — Whenever Mayor Deberey Hinchey looks up at the giant Ponemah Mill in Taftville, she smiles and her eyes start tearing up.
During her four-year term as mayor that ends Tuesday, Democrat Hinchey made repeated trips to Hartford to lobby state economic development, housing financing agencies and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy that the vacant and historic mill complex needed state help.
Her efforts helped secure state gap financing for a $30 million state and privately financed renovation of 116 apartments in the southern half of the building. A $32 million renovation of the second half of the project is slated to begin in January.
“People are moving in!” Hinchey said of her signature accomplishment as mayor. She also serves as the city's head of economic development. She realized it on Nov. 25, as she was about to serve as grand marshal in the Winterfest Parade. Her sister called to say she couldn’t come, because she was helping a friend move into her new apartment in Ponemah Mill.
Hinchey recalled trips to Hartford to snatch minutes of the governor’s time. “There’s this mill ...” she would say, trying to describe the vast size of it and the need for state assistance. Hinchey last week thanked Malloy, state Department of Economic and Community Development, Connecticut Housing Finance Authority and developer Onekey LLC for sticking with the project for the 10 years it took to get it off the ground.
“It came together so that people like my sister’s friend could move in on Saturday,” Hinchey said.
But Hinchey is well aware that even the $62 million that saved the city's largest building cannot overshadow the controversy that dominated her final year in office.
Hinchey accompanied four Norwich Public Utilities officials on a trip to the Kentucky Derby in May 2016, funded by the Connecticut Municipal Electric Energy Cooperative with revenues that otherwise would have been added to the member utilities’ rate stabilization fund.
Hinchey, NPU General Manager John Bilda, NPU Division Manager Steve Sinko and utilities commission Chairwoman Dee Boisclair and Vice Chairman Robert Groner all were found in violation of the city’s ethics code. Hinchey was the first — and, for several months, the only — Norwich official to pay the reimbursement recommended by the Ethics Commission. Hinchey paid the city $1,945, or 25 percent of the calculated cost of her trip.
She announced in February she would not seek a second term, saying the Kentucky Derby controversy was not the reason but the controversy helped her realize she preferred a private-sector career.
In September, Bilda donated the $15,000 total for the trip for him and his wife to a fuel assistance fund.
“I have not shied away from it,” Hinchey said. “The ethics finding, I wish came out different, but it didn’t. I wish I had not been a part of something that brought such anger and consternation to this office.”
A full year before the Kentucky Derby controversy, Hinchey and city Democrats were shocked by the 2015 municipal election that brought a Republican majority sweep to the City Council, Board of Education and treasurer position for the first time in decades. The takeover was fueled by an anti-tax movement along with rejection of Hinchey’s push for spreading costs of fire services city wide. Currently, only residents in the paid fire department district pay for running that service.
Hinchey did not actively campaign during the 2015 or 2017 elections but said she is disappointed the most that the city’s increasing ethnic diversity is not reflected on the council. The new council to be sworn in is all white, as was the departing council.
Preston Republican First Selectman Robert Congdon, who worked closely with Hinchey on the Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments and on the Connecticut Council of Municipalities, said it would be a mistake for Norwich residents to define Hinchey’s term by the Kentucky Derby controversy. Congdon said Hinchey worked hard and gave Norwich a voice at the state and regional level that had been lacking.
“I enjoyed working with her,” Congdon said. “I found her a breath of fresh air. I thought she worked very hard for the betterment of the community, and I think she’ll be missed. She got involved in the Council of Governments and was a board of directors’ member at CCM, which historically southeastern Connecticut is not well represented on.”
Hinchey also turned her attention to city neighborhoods, leading walking tours of some troubled areas, bringing officials from city police, public works, planning and inspections to address problems. She visited city businesses each month and wrote about them in a blog posted on her page on the city website.
Hinchey said she learned a lot about businesses that even long-time residents don’t know are here, including One & Co., a North Main Street custom woodworking business that makes everything from wood furniture and cabinets to high-quality croquet mallets sold all over the country.
“I’m really proud of these businesses,” Hinchey said. “When you go to these places, you get a different perspective on Norwich. People say ‘there’s nothing going on in Norwich,’ and they talk about wanting to bring new businesses here. These are already here.”
Norwich Community Development Corp President Robert Mills said he participated in similar business visits when he worked in other parts of the state, but never on the scale that Hinchey did, visiting more than 100 businesses during her four years.
Gordon Kyle, owner of One & Co., said he appreciated the attention. He said his business at 154 N. Main St. is “where most of the woodworking gets done in eastern Connecticut, but nobody knows it.” Hinchey loved his idea to promote Norwich as the birthplace of modern croquet in the late 19th century.
“I thought it was valuable,” Kyle said of Hinchey's business visit. “It makes you feel good to know the community has an interest in what you’re up to. I took it as a positive.”
Hinchey praised city departments for improving coordination of inspection, permitting and application processes for businesses and residents. Sometimes, she said, officials will escort applicants to another office they need.
But Hinchey supports the city’s government structure she called a “soft mayor,” with a professional city manager in charge of daily operations. She said the elected mayor and City Council should not micromanage operations or the city budget once the council approves it.
“I really think there should be a separation of politics and professional city government,” Hinchey said. “I’m not involved in how the departments should run, and even the budget is up to the city manager.”
Hinchey talked about her four years in her office now cleared of her personal décor. Republican Mayor-elect Peter Nystrom — the former incumbent Hinchey defeated in 2009 — will be sworn in Tuesday evening.
Hinchey already has stepped back into her professional career. A licensed clinical social worker, she had put her career aside to serve full time as mayor. In July, she was named vice president of behavioral health at United Community and Family Services in Norwich. She works on policies to address access to health care services for people with mental illness, emotional support needs and substance abuse.
She said when she took the position, she immediately felt comfortable. She especially is pleased the position is in Norwich and said that helped her decide among other job offers. It will keep her in touch with state legislators and state agencies as well.
“Instead of economic development, it’s more medical, emotional treatment needs,” she said.
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