Preston taxpayers are being asked to borrow $8 million to finance the cleanup of the former Norwich State Hospital property. Tuesday's referendum asks voters to approve two loans; $4 million from the state at 1.5 percent interest and another $4 million at prevailing interest rates. After the state abandoned the property, it left behind a mess for the town to clean up, now it wants to make a profit by collecting interest on a loan to the town.
The search for a developer has gone on since 2004, with failure to reach an agreement on any of the numerous proposals submitted. Voters might remember the failed attempts by Utopia Studios (2006), Northland Development (2008), World LLC (2010), and JHM Group (2012). Each of these developers could have purchased the 390-acre property for $10 with the stipulation that they complete the cleanup.
The Preston Redevelopment Agency (PRA) was created in 2009 with the promise that they would find a developer, not burden the town with more debt. Thus far, the PRA has not been able to close a deal with anyone, and their efforts to find a developer appear to be on hold while they focus on demolition. The PRA has made great strides in getting the property ready for developers. They have received $4 million of federal, state, and town funds to demolish 22 buildings; 33 buildings remain. Funds from the sale of scrap and salvage have added to that effort. Until now, all demolition has been accomplished on a pay-as-you-go basis. Now the PRA wants to enter into a new phase. They want the town to borrow $8 million to accelerate demolition. After that is gone, the PRA estimates it will take another $6 million to finish the job. When the demolition and cleanup is completed the town will have spent in excess of $120,000 an acre to clean up the 120 acre core campus that is estimated to sell for around $50,000 an acre. This doesn't make any sense.
The town has other, more important, improvement projects that could benefit from the $8 million rather than cleaning up a mess left by our state government. We need to replace firefighting equipment, school buses, and snowplows that are 15 to 20 years old; we need a new senior center, and the Town Hall needs renovation.
Without the loans, the PRA can continue demolition and cleanup but at a slower pace. Of the entire 390-acre property, only about 120 acres have buildings or require clean up. The remaining 270 acres are clean and ready for development. With a developer involved, the cleanup could move even faster. The town could help a developer by giving tax incentives, or use funds from the sale of clean property to pay for the remaining demolition. The eight-year search for a buyer has been unsuccessful, and right now there is no commitment from any developer. The PRA estimates that it will be at least four years before "things turn around" and a developer is on site, so there is no reason to rush the town into this large debt.
Whether you support or oppose the proposed $8 million town debt and the accompanying tax increase to pay for it, please vote Tuesday. Voting will take place from noon to 8 p.m. at Preston Town Hall.
By Jerry Grabarek