Preston finds itself in a bad position this morning.
Three years ago voters approved of taking ownership of the former Norwich Hospital campus in that town from the state for the token price of $1. They approved of the purchase knowing that for a decade attempts to find a viable developer for the property had failed. Preston voters also knew that before development could take place it would cost many millions of dollars to remove old buildings, haul away hazardous materials and clean up other pollutants. And no developer had demonstrated the wherewithal or willingness to pay for that remediation.
But having approved of the town taking responsibility for the 393-acre property, the townspeople now seem unwilling to make any further substantial investment in the site to ready it for development. In fact, residents appear disinterested in the whole matter.
On Tuesday voters rejected an $8 million loan package - a $4 million, low-interest state economic development loan matched with $4 million in local bonding. That investment would have attracted a nearly $1 million federal grant. The $9 million would have enabled the Preston Redevelopment Agency, which has already overseen substantial clean up of the site, to remove and abate some of the largest buildings and improve prospects for redevelopment. And for every 100 jobs created because of any development, $1 million of the state loan would have been forgiven, potentially the entire loan.
It is hard to imagine the town getting a better opportunity to prepare the property for development, which was the reason for obtaining it in the first place, in hopes of generating the property tax revenues that this tax-starved town desperately needs.
But by a 319-261 margin voters said "no."
As disappointing as that vote had to be for the redevelopment agency and first selectman, more alarming perhaps was the apathy, with only 15.5 percent of voters bothering to weigh in on such an important decision. While a snowy day at the end of November, three weeks after a presidential election, was a lousy time to hold such a vote, that turnout was still pathetic. (Ongoing negotiations with the state prevented town officials from including the item on the Nov. 6 regular election ballot).
Contrast Tuesday's turnout with the 70 percent of eligible voters who turned out in May 2006 to approve the development agreement with Utopia Studios Ltd. for its proposed entertainment complex and theme park. That deal fell through when Utopia could not demonstrate the financial ability to undertake such a massive development.
Six years later, First Selectman Robert Congdon and the redevelopment agency have lost the interest of the town. After years of false hopes of landing a developer, the apathy is tangible. Attendance was poor at the informational hearings held leading up to the vote to discuss the $8 million loan package.
Without money, without public support and confronting indifference, the property could very well become an albatross for Preston, sucking up resources to secure, insure and maintain, while generating nothing in return.
Those who fought this plan have an obligation to suggest what comes next. And if nothing comes next, their's will turn out to be a pyrrhic victory.
As for Mr. Congdon, who has made trying to develop the former hospital property a centerpiece of his long tenure as first selectman, this comes as a personal defeat. It will be interesting to watch whether he seeks re-election a year from now and, if so, can he obtain it.