New Norwich mayor sees promise in people, assets of city
By Janice Steinhagen - Staff Writer
Norwich - posted Thu., Dec. 19, 2013
Norwich Mayor Deb Hinchey will ring in her first full month in office as the city’s first female mayor a few days into the new year, but she’s already looking for ways to boost economic development in the city. “Part of my style is to bring the multiple talents of city employees together,” she said. “We have wonderful people who want to step up to the plate and want to make a difference. We’re hoping to get a cohesive plan and get folks who have experience in economic development.”
Hinchey, who settled in Norwich in the 1970s, has served two terms on the City Council. She said she sees many assets in the city – among them its many surviving historic structures and its waterfront, which she said has “great potential.” There are also people willing to use their talents for the city’s benefit, she said. “They’re realistic, they know we have some issues to work on. But our people have faith in what we have here and want to move forward.” She said she hoped her administration would “change the paradigm that it can’t be done, that it’s dangerous.”
The city’s diversity is one of its greatest assets, said Hinchey. Events like last fall’s Celebrate Diversity festival on the waterfront, complete with food and entertainment, highlighted the city’s ethnic richness. As a well-traveled child in a military family, she has lived all over the globe and now enjoys exploring the ethnic markets that dot Norwich and its surroundings. “Being exposed to different cultures makes you a well-rounded person,” she said. “Our diverse population offers some challenges, but it also gives our people a much broader sense of what the world is about.”
One very hopeful project on the city’s horizon is the proposed development of the long-abandoned Ponemah Mills in Taftville, in its heyday a booming textile mill and reputedly one the largest cotton mills in the world. Commercial development has moved into some of the structure, but the bulk of the building has been slowly deteriorating over the decades since the plant closed more than 40 years ago. Hinchey toured the structure during her second week in office and said it “took my breath away. It’s an unbelievable building. I think its past is incredible and its potential for the future is very exciting.”
Hinchey said that in the first phase of the project One Key LLC of New Jersey has proposed building residential units, the Lofts at Ponemah Mills, along with a health and fitness center. “They’re working steadfastly to preserve the historic superstructure. They’re experienced in doing this kind of preservation project,” she said. “For the Taftville area, this would be huge.”
The Harbor Commission is also working on plans for a projected boat launch, trying to determine the best site. Developing the harbor, said Hinchey, “is something that could make us incredibly significant in the area.”
Next fiscal year’s budget is already in progress, and City Manager Alan Bergren is working with city departments “to take a look at efficiencies so we can protect jobs. The people of the city don’t want taxes raised, but they want the services,” said Hinchey. Balancing those two realities is still tricky, even though the economy in general has picked up since the 2008 recession.
“Even though our area is starting to make a turnaround, we’re slow. We don’t have a lot of industry – it’s mostly service-related jobs. But there are a lot of things just ready to pop. I believe we have the potential. We didn’t tear down the [historic] buildings like some cities,” said Hinchey.
Maintaining the current tax base is also a priority. City officials are keeping a close eye on the current negotiations between US Foods, which employs more than 350 people at its Norwich facility, and Sysco, which plans to buy the corporation out. Besides being a significant employer, US Foods is also a major utility customer. Hinchey said she is working with the Norwich Community Development Corporation “to see what we can offer.”
Hinchey said that the city’s financial prudence on downtown bonding projects will pay dividends down the road. “We do good stewardship on that money. It’s not going to something that’s going to fail in three months,” she said.
The coming calendar year will bring some new draws to the Rose City. Hinchey said the city is planning its first-ever St. Patrick’s Day parade on Sunday, March 9, and is looking forward to the July 4 world premiere full production of “Benedict Arnold – The Musical,” commissioned by Spirit of Broadway Theater. Planners hope to promote the show with related events, such as a historical re-enactment on the Norwichtown Green.
Hinchey said she’s all for using the famous traitor and native son as a draw for tourism. “If we choose wisely to promote those things that have gone on here, it doesn’t mean we say ‘oh, he was a great guy’. He’s part of who we are,” she said.