By Philip Sengle:
Renovation of the old Police Station next to town hall is proceeding at a cost of $1.54M. By all accounts it will be a fine town facility. The current Station completed in 2006, had a $500,000 amount set aside in its’ bond package to renovate the old Police Station. Promises were made to act quickly but nothing was done until 2012 with predictable and significant cost escalation from $500K to $1.54M. Of course additional functionality was added. As we all know, government likes to grow.
One use of the old (now “rehabbed”) P.D. is for meals on wheels. Several years ago the American Legion Hall was rented for this purpose at a reasonable price. That accomplished two laudable goals, first, saved the town money (a less costly “rehab” or perhaps none at all) and second, it provided a steady source of income for the American Legion which is the only private hall in town. The Legion’s sustainability is a real benefit. Subsequently Meals on Wheels was moved to the town hall which was not ideal, presenting its own problems, and soon will be moved to the “rehabbed” old P.D. Now cleverly referred to as the Town Hall Annex with a view of the Indian River.
I have written before about the need for economic development and grand list growth. We need to get prime town owned properties back on the tax rolls. Of course we could retain ownership but lease it out for private enterprise. We have now missed a tremendous opportunity to jump start downtown revitalization with a class anchor destination. My pleas along with others for privatizing this prime site on the Indian River were ignored. The excuses cited to support making this another permanent town owned building with its attendant costs were, 1. Nobody wants the building, 2. The building has deteriorated and its design is not suitable for a restaurant, 3. We have no waste water solution for Main Street, precluding a restaurant and 4. No available parking.
Point 1., the building was not advertised or listed with a commercial realtor. So how would anyone know it was available? No private proposals were sought or considered – shameful. Point 2, the town let the building deteriorate and then used this fact as a reason no one would want it. Regarding design, as the town has now proved, any building can be modified for a new use with enough money (in this case taxpayer money). Point 3, at a recent Board of selectman meeting, it was discussed by First Selectman Fritz, Selectman Pinder and others that the downtown area is not a “high needs” area for waste water treatment so nothing need be done. I countered that lack of available treatment was blocking economic development. They both disagreed, saying that workable high “tech” solutions are available for areas like downtown. I completely agree, but those solutions were available when the restaurant idea was proposed and rejected. Why didn’t they support those solutions then? Point 4, there is plenty of parking behind the town hall after it closes when it will be needed most, not to mention behind the Coffee Break. Also an agreement with the First Church is possible.
At an August 29th WPCC (Waste Water) Information Meeting, P&Z Chairman Anselmo asked if the waste water system capacity needed for development, specifically on Route 1, would be added to the design capacity to accommodate such growth. The answer was, “Maybe”. State DEEP representative, Dennis Greci said it simply depended on what the WPCC and ultimately the town at large wanted and approved, meaning growth capacity could be added. I followed up with a question about state reimbursement. Mr. Greci indicated that originally the state would only reimburse for correcting the worst areas (a.k.a. Needs areas) but that due to a change in the law the state would now allow some growth capacity to be designed into the system with the town still receiving the full reimbursement rate of 45%. This was very good news and a surprise to most in the audience. Unfortunately our First Selectman was not present to hear this discussion. The only Selectmen present were Carol Walter and Lynn Pinder.
The truth is this building was never available for private development as is now clear from the actions of town leaders. Follow actions and money, not words. In fact one estimate by a local developer to replace the old P.D was $800K, so why would you spend $1.54M on a rehab? After spending so much on this project, what are we going to do if the Pierson School should become available? We will then have another town building on our hands and still no private development on Main Street. There is a school system study going on now that may give us the Pierson answer. Take a look at the Westbrook Senior facility, formerly a school, and you will be impressed. Of course it doubles as their town hall, a convenience we will not have. Other than cosmetic changes accomplished with public money, the only way to cure downtown is through private development money which is much more likely to happen with a new business friendly philosophy in town hall and actions to match. This is another example of undertaking a large project with no overall town planning and no consideration for desperately needed economic development.