Preston voters okay loan plan for former hospital site

By Janice Steinhagen - Staff Writer
Preston - posted Thu., Dec. 20, 2012
Preston voters approved a $4 million plan to ramp up remediation at the former Norwich Hospital site. Photo by Janice Steinhagen.
Preston voters approved a $4 million plan to ramp up remediation at the former Norwich Hospital site. Photo by Janice Steinhagen.

The new year will breathe some new life into the Preston Riverwalk project, as Preston voters on Dec. 18 approved a $4 million plan to ramp up demolition of old buildings and environmental clean-up at the former Norwich Hospital site. The plan, approved by a vote of 304-251, would allow the town to receive a $2 million loan from the state Department of Economic and Community Development, while matching that amount through the sale of bonds. A more ambitious plan, which would have involved a $4 million loan and $4 million in bonds, was rejected by voters just two weeks prior to the Dec. 18 referendum.

First Selectman Robert Congdon said that the vote sends a message to state and federal agencies that the town is willing to invest some of its own money in the project. “If [the measure] failed to pass…state and federal money would have dried up for future grants,” he said.

In addition, stepping up the site remediation “continues to position the site in a better light for when the economy turns around,” Congdon said. Town officials have said that potential developers lose interest in the site because of the clean-up involved and are looking for “shovel-ready” sites.

Up to this point, the town has been using state and federal grant money to work piecemeal on the 393-acre site. But Sean Nugent, chairman of the Preston Redevelopment Agency, said that the site’s larger buildings would not qualify for such grants. The grants, he said, require that a given project be completed, but top out at an amount that isn’t sufficient to complete demolition of some of the larger buildings, such as Kettle and Lodge.

Nugent said that the PRA will be working on finalizing the paperwork for the project in the coming month, mapping out specifics of the agreement with the state. He said that the agency will have to decide which buildings will be demolished with the loan money. Such decisions must be made by the full agency, which will not meet again until the New Year, he said.

As a result, actual demolition work funded by the loan won’t get underway until the second quarter of 2013, said Congdon. But that delay is not really a problem, he said. “You can get more work done on the site in the spring and fall,” he said. “By this time next year, people should see a marked change in the site.”

The close vote indicates that Preston residents are still not fully won over to the project, said Congdon. “The Redevelopment Agency is very well aware that their job is to continue to work hard to prove to the voters of Preston that this was a good investment,” he said.

Preston obtained the former hospital site from the state for $1 after several development plans failed. Rechristened Preston Riverwalk, the site now has 22 of its original 58 structures razed and remediated. PRA members are continuing to apply for federal grants that would chip away further at the remediation project.

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