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Norwich officials consider renewing downtown revitalization program set to expire

Norwich — As the 10-year, $3.38 million bond approved by voters in 2010 will expire by April, economic development officials will ask for new funding to continue the city’s downtown revitalization grant and loan programs.

Voters approved the bond in November 2010, and the program was launched the following April to provide matching grants for building code improvements, rental rebates for new businesses and revolving loans for larger projects.

Jason Vincent, promoted this week as executive director for NCDC, said about $500,000 remains in the program, and about five applications are pending review. About $150,000 of that money is revenue received in payments from loan recipients. Vincent said that money should be considered new revenue to keep the loan program going, rather than bond funds to expire in April.

Mayor Peter Nystrom said he would check with the city’s bond counsel on whether the revolving loan revenue can continue.

The NCDC Board of Directors voted unanimously Thursday to ask the City Council for new funding for the downtown revitalization program. But questions remain on how a new program would be structured.

Timing is a problem, Nystrom, a member of the NCDC board, said. He apologized for not bringing up the pending expiration sooner, saying the COVID-19 emergency left other issues on the sidelines.

It would be “nearly impossible” to get a revitalization bond written in time for a November 2020 referendum, council President Pro Tempore and NCDC board member Mark Bettencourt told the board.

Nystrom suggested the City Council could consider a gap funding proposal for next year as officials design a new program to be presented to voters in the future. The council has authority to bond up to $800,000 without a referendum.

On Friday, Nystrom said he would like to hear input from the public and business owners on whether the downtown program should continue or maybe expanded citywide, as Nystrom had proposed two years ago.

“I personally think it’s crucial to continue this, because it makes Norwich viable for development,” NCDC board Vice Chairwoman Rebecca Alberts said during the meeting. Alberts is co-owner of These Guys Brewing Co. on Franklin St., a recipient of the lease rebate when the business opened in 2015.

Board member Michael Rauh, president of Chelsea Groton Bank, said he would “heartily endorse” an idea to simplify the program with one pool of money rather than separate amounts for each specific program.

Vincent told the board the code correction building renovation matching grant was the most beneficial. Officially, the city matched the owner $1 for $1 up to $100,000, but Vincent said experience has been closer to $4 from the private owner to $1 from the city.

He said in one case, $3,000 from the city helped to fix a structural flaw in a building that then became viable, with active commercial tenants.

“I think we need to hear feedback from the public and businesses on the $800,000 proposal,” Nystrom said. “I would think something like this could have several public hearings. I don’t know how to do that during COVID. Maybe outside, socially distanced, at an outdoor pavilion.”

c.bessette@theday.com

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