Mohegan Tribal chairman says plans for former Norwich Hospital could be wide ranging

Mohegan Tribal Chairman Kevin Brown avoids specifics as he answers questions from media gathered Monday, May 16, 2016 at the Holiday Inn Norwich. Brown joined a host of elected officials following a regularly scheduled Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut breakfast event to comment on the tribe's recent tentative agreement with the town of Preston to purchase and develop the former Norwich Hospital property.  (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Mohegan Tribal Chairman Kevin Brown avoids specifics as he answers questions from media gathered Monday, May 16, 2016 at the Holiday Inn Norwich. Brown joined a host of elected officials following a regularly scheduled Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut breakfast event to comment on the tribe's recent tentative agreement with the town of Preston to purchase and develop the former Norwich Hospital property. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

The Mohegan Tribe's plan for the former Norwich Hospital property in Preston will be developed over the next six months if Preston voters approve a proposed agreement on Thursday, but they could include a synthetic ski slope, “glamour camping,” an outdoor adventure park and ancillary businesses connected to the enhanced submarine construction at Electric Boat in Groton.

“We have conceptual plans for every part of the entire nearly 400 acres,” Mohegan Tribal Chairman Kevin Brown said at a news conference Monday morning following a packed Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut breakfast at the Holiday Inn in Norwich.

Brown gave few specifics and named no corporate partners for plans announced last week that the tribe hopes to purchase the former hospital property for a proposed $200 million to $600 million development project.

Preston voters will be asked to approve the Memorandum of Understanding with the tribe at a town meeting Thursday. If it is approved, the tribe would have 180 days to develop a master plan for the property and negotiate a purchase and sale agreement with Preston officials. Voters would have to approve that agreement as well.

The tribal chairman said the Mohegans' extensive contacts with “world class” developers would be enlisted to create business, entertainment and destination projects catering to Mohegan Sun casino patrons, tourists, eastern Connecticut residents and employees. The non-gaming project would help the Mohegan tribe diversify from the casino business, while also helping some of the tribe’s already diverse business entities, including restaurants, expand across the river, Brown said. The Mohegan Holding Co., the tribe's non-gaming business arm, has opened two Arooga's Grille House and Sports Bars and four Jersey Mike's Subs shops.

“Everyone who has lived in southeastern Connecticut has thought of what could happen with this property,” Brown said, promising to put tribal planners to work on a myriad of those ideas.

A synthetic ski slope would allow year-round skiing, he said. Glamour camping, or "glamping," as it's known, brings resort-style amenities to the camping experience. Brown also said 55-and-over residential units could be part of the plans.

He said the tribe has been interested in the former Norwich Hospital property, now called Preston Riverwalk, for two decades, but said the town of Preston’s work over the past seven years to demolish decaying buildings and clean up environmental contamination made it possible to pursue that interest.

Preston acquired the 393-acre portion of the former hospital property within its boundaries in 2009, and under supervision of the Preston Redevelopment Agency has obtained $15 million in state and federal grants and loans, with more than $2 million in town funds committed to the cleanup. The state Department of Economic and Community Development also has pledged to provide the remaining estimated $10 million to complete the cleanup once the property sale goes forward.

The proposed MOU between the tribe and the town calls for the tribe to pay the town no less than $11 million for the property if no development takes place there within five years. That amount would cover the entire town debt, including the bond payments on the $2 million loan approved by voters a year ago. The $11 million, however, would be waived incrementally if development reaches milestone values, giving the town property tax value from the development instead.

Norwich city officials, local state legislators and U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. — the guest speaker at the chamber breakfast — surrounded Brown at Monday’s news conference, expressing excitement and support for the Mohegans' purchase. Blumenthal pledged support from the Connecticut congressional delegation for any “federal resources” that might be needed.

Norwich Mayor Deberey Hinchey said the project would benefit her city and the entire region. “We couldn’t be more excited for this project,” she said.

The nearly 40-acre former Norwich Hospital property in Norwich was sold by the state to Colchester-based developer Thames River Landing LLC last October for $300,000. That portion still is dominated by decaying institutional buildings, along with an abandoned subdivision of former staff housing. Developer Mark Fields has not announced any development plans for that property.

Although Brown announced no specifics for the former hospital property, Norwich Public Utilities General Manager John Bilda said he is ready to move forward with a plan to extend NPU natural gas lines to the property. NPU, which has gas franchise rights in Preston, has natural gas line service along Route 2 and 2A in Preston into the Poquetanuck area. Norwich voters in November 2014 approved a $9.5 million natural gas expansion project that included $2 million to extend the line to the Preston Riverwalk property if a development were proposed there.

Bilda said he anticipates extending the line to the Route 12 property this summer, coordinated with state Department of Transportation work on the roadway and a bridge the gas line would have to cross.

Tony Sheridan, president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut, said the tribe's plans to buy the former hospital property is having a “great impact,” including giving a psychological boost to a region still lagging behind in the recovery from the Great Recession.

c.bessette@theday.com

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