Harbor utility plan on hold, but still alive

By Janice Steinhagen - Staff Writer
Norwich - posted Tue., Aug. 16, 2011
City officials hope to bring full utility service to the formerly industrial Shipping Street area in the Thamesville section of Norwich . Photos by Janice Steinhagen.
City officials hope to bring full utility service to the formerly industrial Shipping Street area in the Thamesville section of Norwich . Photos by Janice Steinhagen.

After the Norwich City Council rejected a postponement, Mayor Peter Nystrom withdrew his proposal for a $5 million bond issue aimed at establishing full city utilities in the Shipping Street area. But the issue’s far from dead. “We as a city can’t afford to walk away from creating opportunities for private investment [in the city],” Nystrom said.

The proposed utility project was designed to encourage businesses to move into the former industrial site along the Thames River, in the Thamesville section of the city. The issue would have gone to referendum in the November election for voter approval. Nystrom told council members that they could postpone their vote until the September deadline for referendum issues, to allow for more information-gathering. But they rejected that proposal by a 3-2 vote.

Nystrom called Shipping Street “a key area of our city” and said that providing sewer, water and electrical services there would make the area more attractive to business development. He said businesses that occupy the site would have “three modes of transportation for their goods” – water, rail and road. “It would speed up their whole manufacturing process and would reduce costs for the manufacturing process itself,” he said.

But some members of the council – and several of the citizens who spoke at the public hearing prior to the meeting – agreed with the city’s Commission on the City Plan. That commission had already rejected the proposed bond issue, saying there wasn’t enough specific information about how funds would be used.

Norwich Public Utilities General Manager John Bilda told the council that installation of sewer lines and a high-voltage electrical system, coupled with enlargement of the water main and tapping into adjacent gas lines, would make the 200-acre area suitable for industrial development.

Peter Davis, the city’s planning director, said the proposal was consistent with the city’s 2002 plan of conservation and development, as well as with state and federal policies. He added, though, that he didn’t think the city was “positioned to compete for these [bond] dollars now.”

Public comment on the matter was evenly divided, for and against. Joann Philbrick said that the area currently looks “terrible” and said she saw the project as a way for Norwich to market itself. “I see this as a win-win,” she said.

Most of the opponents said they didn’t oppose the idea of improving the Shipping Street area for development per se, but rather were concerned about the lack of information about the project. “If you approve this tonight, you’ll find yourselves unable to answer the public’s questions,” Norwich resident Pete Ripley told the council. He favored giving both the council and the public more time for informational meetings, then scheduling a special election for public vote.

Rodney Bowie said that potential businesses could find more favorable sites along the Thames River. “What does anybody think is going to move into this area?” he asked. “Nobody’s wrong [about promoting development], but I don’t see the economic return to the city.”

Nystrom said that he’ll continue to meet with the public about the utility plan. He met Aug. 16 with U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who pledged his support in resolving federal flood-plain issues that could hamper industrial development along the river.

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