Ponemah Mill celebrates first phase completion, start of second

Scaffolding shrouds the north tower of the former Ponemah Mill in Taftville as work on the second phase of the Lofts at Ponemah Mill project continues Friday, Sept. 21, 2018.  Developer OneKey LLC is celebrating completion and full occupancy of the 116 units in the first phase of the project.  (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Scaffolding shrouds the north tower of the former Ponemah Mill in Taftville as work on the second phase of the Lofts at Ponemah Mill project continues Friday, Sept. 21, 2018. Developer OneKey LLC is celebrating completion and full occupancy of the 116 units in the first phase of the project. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

Norwich — Kathy and Kevin Jesmonth were at their Colchester home watching TV news on May 9, 2017, when a news feature about the $30 million transformation of the formerly vacant giant Ponemah Mill in Taftville came on and the reporter described the plan to create 116 high-ceiling, loft apartments.

The recent empty-nesters looked at each other simultaneously and within minutes agreed they were ready to sell their house of 31 years and start a new chapter in their lives. Kathy being a sixth-grade teacher in Colchester public schools and Kevin the shop manager at Grader Jewelers in Groton, a new apartment in Norwich with easy access to Route 2 or Interstate 395 would be just fine.

Kathy Jesmonth called the Greater Norwich Area Chamber of Commerce — since Ponemah didn’t even have a leasing office at the time — and got hooked up with developer OneKey to be put on a waiting list.

“We signed the lease Aug. 18 (2017), and anxiously waited for the apartments to open,” Kathy Jesmonth said Friday, introduced to a crowd of about 50 city, state and project dignitaries at a celebration of the completion of the first phase of the Lofts at Ponemah Mills.

Norwich Community Development Corp. President Robert Mills introduced her as the building’s “very first tenant.” On Friday, developer OneKey LLC Director of Operations Finbar O’Neill announced that the first phase now is “leased out,” and Jesmonth told the audience she watched it grow every day when she came home from work.

On one day, the fitness center and sauna opened. Another day, the movie theater or community room. And one day, the stone lions that guard main entrances arrived. Somewhere along the way, the Jesmonths also met their new neighbors and became friends. She attended the historic walking tour of Taftville, led by Taftville Volunteer Fire Department Chief Tim Jencks.

“We realized from the start this was not going to be an apartment building,” she said. “This was going to be a community.”

Friday’s event was a dual celebration, a ribbon-cutting to mark completion of the 116-unit, $30 million phase one, and a gold-shovel groundbreaking ceremony for construction — which is well underway — on the $32 million, 121-unit phase two. Looking at the giant mill from the front on Norwich Avenue, the first phase is the right half of the gigantic mill, and the second phase is the left half, with its castle-like stair tower encased in scaffolding.

Four workers from Mattern Construction paused for a time Friday and looked down from the top of the scaffolding to watch the ceremony. Those on the ground occasionally looked up at them and took photos.

Speakers from the state Department of Housing, the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority, the National Development Council, Mills from NCDC and political leaders all marveled at the project and the more than 10 years it took to get to this point. OneKey purchased the mill in 2007, and the project ground to a halt more than once during the housing crash and Great Recession.

Mills brought in development financing expert Kevin Gremse, senior director and East Team Leader for the National Development Council, to help work out the complex net of loans, affordable-housing and historic preservation tax credits and tax breaks needed. The City Council approved a 15-year phase-in of property taxes.

But even with the local property tax breaks, OneKey and its various ownership names will pay $184,219 in property taxes this year to the city on 10 properties in Taftville, city Tax Collector Karlene Deal said Friday.

Nick Lundgren, deputy commissioner of the state Department of Housing, said the Ponemah Mill development went from a long-shot dream project to a “shining example” of how public and private investment can transform derelict properties of all sizes throughout the state. He said the department is tackling old mills, a bank building and even a farm house.

“It’s been very exciting to watch this project evolve,” he said.

Karl Kilduff, CHFA executive director, recalled touring the project when the only resident was a worker in a small construction trailer at the far end of the building.

“This is a project we are excited about,” Kilduff said. “This is a project we talk about often.”

Before directing participants to the afternoon’s refreshments, Mills said a year from now, he hopes to be sending out another invitation to a combination ribbon-cutting of phase two and a groundbreaking for phase three: a planned 77-unit renovation of the rear wings of the building that juts back toward the Shetucket River. OneKey has submitted financing applications for phase three already, O’Neill said.

“Sometimes it takes longer than we all like,” O’Neill said, “but we get it done in the end.”

c.bessette@theday.com

Roofers Luke Ballestrini, left, and Frank Walmsley affix shingles to the roof of the north tower of the former Ponemah Mill in Taftville on Friday, Sept. 21, 2018. Walmsley is a third-generation member of his family to work on the site. Developer OneKey LLC is celebrating completion and full occupancy of the 116 units in the first phase of the Lofts at Ponemah Mill project as work on the 121 units of the second phase continues.  (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Roofers Luke Ballestrini, left, and Frank Walmsley affix shingles to the roof of the north tower of the former Ponemah Mill in Taftville on Friday, Sept. 21, 2018. Walmsley is a third-generation member of his family to work on the site. Developer OneKey LLC is celebrating completion and full occupancy of the 116 units in the first phase of the Lofts at Ponemah Mill project as work on the 121 units of the second phase continues. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Ben Scott carries a section of ventilation duct down the first-floor corridor of the Lofts at Ponemah Mill project in Taftville on Friday, Sept. 21, 2018. Developer OneKey LLC is celebrating completion and full occupancy of the 116 units in the first phase of the  project as work on the 121 units of the second phase continues.  (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Ben Scott carries a section of ventilation duct down the first-floor corridor of the Lofts at Ponemah Mill project in Taftville on Friday, Sept. 21, 2018. Developer OneKey LLC is celebrating completion and full occupancy of the 116 units in the first phase of the project as work on the 121 units of the second phase continues. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

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