From school to startup: Groton Heights project edges forward

Groton — The more-than-a-century-old former Groton Heights School is on track to be redeveloped as a new space for a growing company in the maritime high-tech industry.

With marine technology firm ThayerMahan announced in March as the "preferred developer" for the former school property owned by the town, the project now is moving into the implementation phase, said Paige Bronk, economic and community development manager for the Town of Groton.

A letter of intent, outlining the expectations between the town and the company, is anticipated to come before the Town Council for approval, likely next month, he said.

ThayerMahan Chief Operating Officer Richard J. Hine said that ThayerMahan is looking for more space as its portfolio of contracts, projects, sensors and systems are all increasing and the company is rapidly running out of room at its approximately 14,000-square-foot facility at 120B Leonard Drive.

"We're on a pretty steep growth trajectory right now," Hine said.

When he visited the Groton Heights School site, for which the town had issued a request for proposals, he was impressed with the location at 244 Monument St. in the City of Groton — next to the Bill Memorial Library and Fort Griswold — and also with the building, which was an elementary school until 2007.  The company decided it was a "perfect fit" and submitted its proposal to the town and ultimately was chosen as the preferred developer, he said.

Under the plan, the company will keep its current facility, while the 27,185-square-foot Groton Heights School building will provide additional office, engineering, design, operations center, warehouse and light assembly space and allow for needed growth, he said.

ThayerMahan is hoping to open the Groton Heights School building — anticipated ultimately to be the company's headquarters — in August 2020, he said. With the expansion, the company is projecting it will add 40 new clean, high-tech jobs by 2021. ThayerMahan's average salary is about $85,000, he said.

The company, which was started in 2016 in Mystic by Hine and retired U.S. Navy Vice Admiral Mike Connor, who served together as young junior officers on the submarine USS Pittsburgh, specializes in autonomous maritime solutions targeted at "maritime domain awareness," Hine said. The company not only develops and integrates sensors, but deploys sensors in the water, operates them remotely and autonomously, gathers information and then processes and analyzes that data for customers, he said.

ThayerMahan has customers in the national defense industry and the energy sector, as well as in the detection of illegal maritime activities.

Preserving the building's history

Under the adaptive re-use project, Hine said the company plans to preserve the heritage of the location and the school, built in 1912, while updating it into a 21st century structure.

ThayerMahan will preserve the core of the building, while upgrading it with a new roof and new windows and tailoring the interior to fit the company's needs, Hine said. The company intends to research the school's history and put up some plaques and class pictures, as well as hold an open house for neighbors and former graduates of the school, he said.

A potential land swap also is contemplated with the Bill Memorial Library, in which a narrow parcel in front of the school building would go to the library. A parcel north of Library Street with frontage on Smith Street would be ceded to become part of ThayerMahan's proposed site, and the company potentially could build a R&D engineering annex there in the future, he said.

Under the proposal, there would be no access to the Groton Heights School building on Monument Street; all access would be on Smith Street, Hine said.

ThayerMahan has offered to create an outdoor garden and meditation area with trellises, benches and tables to serve library patrons, people touring the monument at Fort Griswold Battlefield State Park, and company employees, Hine said.

Mark Oefinger, Bill Memorial Library board member and former town manager, said ThayerMahan is interested in being a good neighbor and looking to partner on events with the library, such as children's programs that involve technology.

ThayerMahan has been meeting with neighborhood residents, Bill Memorial Library representatives and town and city officials, and making sure everyone is comfortable with the plans and then taking the feedback and making appropriate modifications, Hine said. The company gave a public presentation to the Town Council last week, and will present to the City Council this month.

Economic development

Town Mayor Patrice Granatosky said during last week's Town Council meeting that the project is exactly the kind of economic development the council had been hoping for and the project is good for the neighborhood, the town and ThayerMahan. She said she liked that ThayerMahan is preserving the integrity of the building and the character of the neighborhood.

The city and town previously had worked together to change the zoning of the site. City Mayor Keith Hedrick said by phone that he thinks having ThayerMahan in that location is going to be positive for the city and could be an economic driver, as it's beneficial to have technology and industry in the community. Any renovations to the building will go through city processes, including Planning and Zoning, he said.

Bronk said the letter of intent, once executed, will formalize the partnership between the town and ThayerMahan. A more detailed purchase and sales agreement ultimately would follow that, with the final step being the town selling the property to the company.

Preliminary development work is expected to take place this year, with construction anticipated for 2020, he said.

"We’re so excited, and they are a great partner to work with," Bronk said.

Bronk added that the project is a great example of diversifying the local economy and growing the maritime industry.

Hine said while people may have a perception that Connecticut isn't business-friendly, ThayerMahan's experience, from state programs to local and regional programs and networking opportunities, has been exactly the opposite. The company wants others in the industry to also locate to the area.

"We really believe that southeastern Connecticut can become this national headquarters for marine robotics and maritime high-tech industry, and if we can be the point company for recruiting businesses, we’re happy to do that," he said.

k.drelich@theday.com

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