Preston: Small town on the verge of something big
Preston — This quiet farming town isn't used to such attention.
Calls are coming in from officials in larger cities and towns, and from economic development agencies, asking: “How did you do it?” A top state economic development official frequently advises other towns to follow Preston's example.
Preston is a typical Connecticut small town, with less than 5,000 residents spread over almost 32 square miles. But within its border is a potential development jewel: a 400-acre abandoned mental illness hospital on the banks of the Thames River. Residents agreed to take the property from the state in 2009, and handed its future, and in some ways the fate of the town, to an all-volunteer board.
The group — a retired electrical engineer, a scientist, a furniture store owner, a former teacher and a retired Navy veteran among them — spent eight years obtaining grants and loans for a $26 million cleanup of the property and its dozens of decaying, contaminated buildings and a contaminated tunnel system.
And in April, Preston secured a $200 million to $600 million development plan by Mohegan Gaming & Entertainment.
“We're all volunteers, 10 individuals,” Preston Redevelopment Agency Chairman Sean Nugent told the Norwich Planning Commission in talking about the economic potential of the proposal. “There have been 17 total members. No one is paid. But some of us feel like it's a full-time job at times.”
The town reached an agreement in April with the Mohegan Gaming & Entertainment to build a giant entertainment, recreational, sports and residential resort on the property, which is directly across from the Mohegan Sun Casino, but will contain no gaming components.
“We got to where we are today in part because it was the perfect storm,” Preston First Selectman Robert Congdon said. “We had the property to the point where it was cleaned up enough so a developer would realistically consider developing it, and the unknowns wouldn’t scare them away. Casino gaming is going in Massachusetts, and the tribe needs to diversify. And the governor saw it as an opportunity to create jobs, when jobs were leaving the state.”
Congdon, an ex-officio member of the PRA, credits the agency for its unwavering dedication over the years. The group routinely holds long meetings twice monthly, elbow-deep in bureaucratic and technical documents. Members have participated by phone when major health issues arose or during vacations.
“A lot of hard work, a lot of man hours, a lot of sacrifices by individuals,” Congdon said. “We had the right people at the right time for what the project was, and as people came and went, we still were able with strictly volunteers to help accomplish these amazing hurdles that lay in front of us. That was really uncharted territory for such a small group, and very unheard of to have such an endeavor as developing this type of property in our small town.”
Nugent in turn said the entire effort couldn’t have been done without Congdon’s leadership.
Preston had just an advisory spot on a “very weak” regional advisory board, as member Merrill Gerber put it, when the state closed the sprawling institution in 1996. Gerber, now 78 and a PRA member, has been involved since those days.
After the hollow Utopia Studios proposal fizzled in 2006, Preston was left with a completed environmental study — although Utopia never paid the study firm — that gave the town a starting point. The town secured a three-year option with the state to try to find another developer through its own Norwich Hospital Advisory Committee.
Gerber, a member of that board, too, recalled attending a meeting with Congdon at the state Office of Policy and Management. The town officials pressed that the state needed to pay more attention to the property.
“The director of OPM said: 'Hey, do you think you guys can do better?'” recounted Gerber, a retired electrical engineer for the Sound Lab in New London. “We responded in a very polite way. I said: 'Yes.'”
The Norwich Hospital Advisory Committee took a big gamble and asked residents to take hold of the property's future. Some residents and town officials bristled. How could the town, with a combined town and school budget of $13.3 million at the time, take on a cleanup costing tens of millions of dollars with no guarantee of success? “Too much risk,” an editorial in The Day said two days before the Feb. 24, 2009, referendum.
Voters narrowly approved the move, 608 to 564. The Preston Redevelopment Agency, with several advisory committee members, was created and took charge of the property.
That step was critical, state Department of Economic and Community Development Deputy Commissioner Tim Sullivan said.
Sullivan, who has worked closely with "pesky" Preston since he joined DECD in 2014, said handing the Norwich Hospital property to an agency dedicated solely to that task should be the model for all Connecticut cities and towns with troublesome properties. If a mayor or town planner has to do it, he said, it always will be one of 25 issues on the desk, and it won't get top priority.
“I tell that to a town once a week,” Sullivan said. “‘Here’s how Preston did it. And you could try this,' particularly for larger sites. Very few are 400 acres, but any sites that have this type of complexity. Mayors and town planners and economic development directors have full-time jobs. To have a group focused on this and only this is key. Preston is a gleaming example of how it can work.”
The governor visits
The 11-member PRA divided its tasks into subcommittees — operations, finances, marketing and communications. Longtime member Linda Riegel recalled organizing regional roundtable discussions early on to get people talking about the potential benefits of the property. The group had an annual operating budget ranging from about $150,000 to $220,000.
Former member Frank Ennis took charge of the property itself, working closely with contracted demolition firm Manafort Bros. Inc. and arranging tours for interested developers, political leaders, ghost hunters and filmmakers for a documentary, "Life After People," on how buildings decay. PRA member John Harris, a Mohegan tribal member who worked for Pfizer for 35 years, took over as director of site operations after Ennis retired.
Although Preston is considered a Republican town, its leaders' persistence in Hartford secured a visit by Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy on Aug. 13, 2011. State support started to flow, starting with a small $20,000 survey and planning grant and then a $50,000 matching grant to preserve the historic Administration Building. Bigger money followed, including a $1 million state Urban Act grant, a $500,000 Small Town Economic Assistance Program grant, a $2 million DECD matching brownfields loan, more assessment grants and, finally, state approval for an additional $10 million grant to finish the cleanup.
The final cleanup is expected to start July 17, paving the way for the Mohegans' development estimated to start in late 2019.
In all, Preston received $19.4 million in state grants and loans, $2.2 million in federal grants and contributed $2.4 million in local town funds as matching shares, for a combined total of $24 million. Manafort Bros. Inc. raised another $2 million in scrap value, completing the estimated $26 million cleanup cost. The town secured an additional $2 million "just in case" contingency loan from the DECD if unexpected contamination is found in the next year, but officials hope never to need that money.
PRA member Jim Bell, in charge of financing, and Town Planner Kathy Warzecha wrote applications for dozens of state and federal grants for the cleanup. Undaunted by rejections, they met with grant agencies and perfected their applications and tried again.
“If you look back, we got denied for a lot of grants, as well,” said Bell, a retired college professor who also had owned a printing business.
When the first federal Environmental Protection Agency assessment grant came through in 2009, followed by three $200,000 EPA cleanup grants in 2010, everyone cheered: “Wow! We finally cracked the ice,” Bell said.
The joy soon faded when the targeted Ribicoff Building tested positive for extensive PCB contamination. The $240,000 demolition estimate soared to nearly $600,000. It took several years to take that building down.
“All it took was to keep trying until something stuck,” Bell said. “I have to give Kathy Warzecha a lot of credit for the applications and reporting to DECD and EPA.”
'Differences of view'
In the early years, before grants and steady progress, frustration seeped into the agency, longtime members recalled. Heated debates erupted. Members stormed out of meetings. Founding Chairman Kent Borner — credited by Congdon for providing the agency with its development framework — resigned.
Sandra Ewing, a calming force, took the helm and brought the committee together with a cohesive chemistry, Congdon said. When she stepped down in 2011, current Chairman Nugent, a retired Pfizer Inc. scientist, became the face and voice of the agency, a lobbying force with a background in real estate and program management.
With a big developer seemingly unlikely, Nugent worked with state officials in August 2011 to allow the town to clean and sell one parcel at a time.
Nugent said he has a “passion for economic development” and now is urging surrounding towns to capitalize on what should be a benefit for the entire region.
Joe Biber, another member who dates back to the advisory committee, said even when the PRA struggled and debated how it should tackle the job, he felt confident that eventually the economy and the right developer would come along.
“Everyone wanted the very best possible outcomes,” said Biber, owner of Preston Trading Post furniture and wood stove store. “There may have been differences of view on how to achieve the results. If one had a certain outlook, he might have wanted one direction. There were healthy debates about how to approach it, and it was a big undertaking.”
Mohegans show interest
Through the years and all the fits and starts, Mohegan tribal leaders kept an eye and on the property across the Thames River that has a historical tie to the tribe dating back 400 years.
Kevin Brown, tribal council chairman, left the area for several years to go to college and serve in the U.S. Army. Whenever he returned, he would look across the river at the abandoned hospital property.
“I would look out my office window and do the monkey scratch,” Brown said of state inaction. “What are they doing and why?”
His brother, Mark Brown, a tribal councilor and former chairman, said the tribe considered buying the property in the mid-1990s, and drew up a master plan. But state officials gave the tribe a cold reception, he said, and that experience colored how the tribe viewed its potential involvement.
Tribal officials kept watching as Preston took control and ditched the idea of trying to sell the property outright and started the cleanup. The tribe's interest rekindled as leaders watched buildings — especially the giant Kettle Building that dominated the main campus — come down.
“Here you had this multimillion-dollar piece of land, and a group of individuals with a passion for the town working on it,” Mark Brown said of the PRA.
For Kevin Brown, the “aha moment” came when Preston was invited by the national Counselors of Real Estate to participate in an in-depth study of the property and potential development plans. A team of experts from across the country met with leaders and groups from throughout the region and made recommendations at an open meeting March 20, 2015, at the Hilton Garden Inn in Preston.
Kevin Brown sat in the audience and as maps and possible developments were discussed, he turned to Mitchell Etess, chief executive officer of Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority.
“Why aren't we leading this conversation?” Kevin Brown recalled asking Etess.
The Browns credited Preston's leadership for getting the property to the point where it was feasible for renewed interest by the tribe. The state had invested enough money, and the town had completed enough of the cleanup to show the property's potential, Kevin Brown said.
“I can't say we'd be sitting here and having the same conversation if it was still in that state,” he said of the decaying, abandoned buildings and contaminated grounds.
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