In southeast Connecticut, a governor visits ruins of ‘Utopia’

PRESTON–For the first time since it was shuttered in 1996, a sitting governor Monday visited the sprawling grounds of the old Norwich State Hospital, a local symbol of neglect, decay and stifled hopes for economic revitalization.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy came here to this rural community on the Thames River, just downstream from Norwich and across the river from the Mohegan Sun casino, for a briefing on the on-again, off-again plans to reuse the property, once the site of a wildly-ambitious development called “Utopia.”

It is now being marketed as “Preston Riverwalk.”

Malloy, who has been governor for eight months, scored points just by showing up for a PowerPoint presentation in a garage, rain pouring down outside three open high bay doors. Then he toured the grounds, which are now surrounded by chain link.

Malloy Preston

Malloy takes a briefing in a garage.

“It is an impressive site, as I knew it was,” Malloy said.

The hospital site has been a source of conflict between this small town and successive administrations in Hartford. Once the town bought the site in 2009 after the state failed to develop it, the town seemed to be on its own.

“He is the first governor to come to the property, at least over the last 16 years,” said Sean Nugent, the director of the Preston Redevelopment Agency.

But Malloy came only to look and listen, not to commit state dollars. Like the local officials, he is eager to see what kind of ideas come in next month in response to a request for proposals by the new  redevelopment agency.

“I’ll stay tuned, and then we’ll have to make some judgments about what our level of involvement is,” Malloy said.

Malloy has authorized some significant economic development deals, but he shown no interest in the state as a developer of a mega-projects, such as the Connecticut Convention center, Rentschler Field football stadium and other projects that Gov. John G. Rowland helped build with state dollars.

“It’s not my intention to kill the deal for lack of funds,” Malloy said of the Preston project. “But I don’t go into this with the intention that we be the big bank.”

It is a different era.

Malloy said he wants to leverage development that can generate jobs, but it must be focused. His biggest commitment has been to the Hartford-to-New Britain busway in which $96 million in state funds are expected to bring more than $400 million in federal transportation dollars.

“We have a budget. We are going to live within that capital budget,” Malloy said. “We have to set priorities, which I think is transportation and education, with some money for other things, with the overall goal of job production.”

Preston purchased the site from the state for a dollar in 2009, ending a dozen years of acrimony and uncertainty about control of the campus, while the state entertained pitches from developers, including one who promised them Utopia.

In their vision, Utopia was the name of a mixed-use development that was to include a movie studio, theme park and more. The dream died in 2006, leaving the town with bad memories and $400,000 legal bill.

For their dollar, Preston bought 390 acres of land and a liability of $20 million to $30 million–the estimated cost to clean the site of pollutants and demolish all but one of 55 buildings, which officials say the state left to rot. Only the architecturally significant administration building is to be saved.

With $1.1 million in state and federal clean up grants, Preston has hired Manafort Brothers to secure the site and begin limited demolition and environmental remediation. But they will need far more.

Local officials say they were encouraged by Malloy’s presence, despite his reticence.

Norwich State Hospital

One of 55 empty buildings.

“I think he made it clear there is not going to be a handout,” said Robert Congdon, the longtime first selectman. “We don’t expect a handout. We’re looking for hand up.”

Sen. Andrew Maynard, D-Stonington, and Rep Tom Reynolds, D-Ledyard, who both participated in the briefing and joined Malloy on a bus tour closed to the press, said they believe the Malloy Administration might become a partner, if the town can show a strong likelihood for job-creation and new tax revenue.

Malloy said he did not consider $20 million or $30 million to clear the site to be a “mega-project,” not given the size of the parcel. His priorities of transportation and education do not rule out other capital investments, he said.

“We can play an appropriate sized-role in other types of development,” Malloy said.

The proposals due Sept. 16 are for the 130 acres on the hospital’s original campus, which runs from Route 12 to the Thames River. Its river frontage includes a deep-water pier. The site has access by water, rail and highway and is 60 miles to Providence, 107 miles to Boston and 130 miles to New York City.

A week earlier, the state is expected to open proposals on a 49-acre parcel in Norwich that state still owns.

With the economy down, the RFPs on the two sites should be a reality check, Malloy said.

“We’re excited and probably biting our fingers a bit,” Nugent said

“Let’s see what comes,” Malloy said.