Published December 17. 2012 4:00AM
It is absurd to hold a referendum vote on an important issue a week before Christmas, but Preston officials find themselves in an absurd situation.
Desperate to try to leverage some state help in moving forward with the cleanup of the former Norwich Hospital property, town leaders have rushed onto the ballot Tuesday a question asking voters to approve $4 million in borrowing. The money would come in the form of a $2 million low-interest loan from the state of Connecticut, with repayment delayed for five years and forgiven entirely if future development on the site creates 200 jobs, to be matched with $2 million in traditional town bonding.
The vote comes just three weeks after voters rejected an $8 million loan proposal - $4 million from the state and $4 million local match - that also would have landed Preston a nearly $1 million federal economic development grant to help get the former hospital campus ready for redevelopment. We had urged voters to seize that $9 million opportunity to get the cleanup of the former campus nearly completed. They said no.
In going back to voters so quickly, and in the midst of the holiday season, town officials know they are almost assuredly going to get a small turnout that may not represent the will of the people of Preston as whole. Yet their fear of waiting longer is understandable. Given Connecticut's fiscal problems, there is no guarantee how long the state's offer will remain available.
This $4 million proposal is not enough to get the job done, but it is better than doing nothing and voters should approve the measure.
In 2009 Preston voters approved buying from the state for a token $ 1 the 393 acres of the campus located in their town, along with the many buildings and other facilities located on it. Town officials made it clear then that development could not take place until most of the buildings were razed and pollution and hazardous materials cleaned up. If a developer could not be found willing and able to do the job in return for the property, and none has in the 15 years since the state closed the facility, then town residents should have known they would have to come up with a plan to do it.
Much progress has been made, with the Preston Redevelopment Agency obtaining $3.7 million in federal and state grants to raze and environmentally remediate some facilities, and negotiating to get others removed in return for salvage materials. But now some of the largest and most difficult buildings remain, and that will take a sizeable investment.
The payoff could be substantial - eventual development, job creation, and generation of the additional property tax dollars this revenue-starved town so desperately needs. The alternative is to deny the loan, ignore the challenge, and allow the property to sit, undeveloped. But that too will cost money for liability insurance and security.
We urge Preston residents to take a brief break from their holiday preparations, get to the polls Tuesday and vote yes on this important, if ill-timed, question.