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Small Conn. Town Has Big Plans For Development Along Thames

Rhonda Miller

Nearly 400 acres of prime real estate along the Thames River in Preston, Connecticut, was once the site of Norwich State Hospital,  which closed in 1996. Since then, the property has attracted several proposals for development.  None of them have worked out.

Five years ago, the little town of Preston took a big leap and bought the property, that's now envisioned as Preston Riverwalk.

Bulldozers and scrap sorting machines are working on the rubble of one of 57 structures being demolished on the Preston Riverwalk site.

“So, in 2009, the town of Preston purchased for $1 the 390 acres from the state of Connecticut and we rebranded it as Preston Riverwalk,” said Sean Nugent, Chairman of the Preston Redevelopment Agency.

That was a pretty good deal. Or was it, considering all the cleanup and work?

“You never get anything for free, right?” said Nugent.

He says the buildings were left vacant and unattended for 13 years and the demolition is leaving toxic materials.

“It’s a brownfield site, mainly because of 1.3 million square feet of buildings that have asbestos in ’em and lead and it has to be cleaned up," he said.

The clean-up is expected to cost between $23 and $25 million. So far, $15 million has been raised, including $9 million from the state, $2 million from the federal government, and the rest from the town. The property is on the market as six parcels for mixed use development.   

“So, we anticipate that we could put a hotel on this property. You could have light industrial. You could have what we’ll call mid-density or complementary residential. You could have townhouses, which could be a senior graded living facility. You would have a retail component. And then educational or research type centers,” said Nugent.

The main selling points are the location on the Thames River and proximity to Boston, New York, and Hartford. The property is close to business, military, and tourism sites in New London and Mystic, as well as the casinos.

“The town of Preston actually is flanked by the casinos. Mohegan Sun on the west and the Mashantucket Pequot Foxwoods on the east, and they’re about seven-and-a-half miles apart and that represents the width of the town of Preston,” said Nugent.

He admits the project is quite a vision for a town with 5,000 residents.

“It’s a huge project for a small town. It’s gargantuan.  But, again, after 13 years of the state doing absolutely nothing, the residents of Preston felt that at least being in their control was better than sitting at the side never really having a say in what could be done,” said Nugent.

Credit Rhonda Miller

As traffic goes by on Connecticut Route 12, Norwich resident Ted Richard recalls his 28 years working on the property when it was a state hospital.

“This was where I spent the majority of my time working at Norwich Hospital, was in this Kettle Building,” said Richard. He says the patients were treated with respect and they had a good routine.

“We had jobs that we took our clients out to. They’d go to the hotels, make beds, clean rooms. They did get paid money that they kept,” said Richard, who heard a lot about the hospital’s history.

“The patients and the aides would go out and work. It was a self-sustaining hospital at one point. That was long before I got here, probably in the 20s and 30s. They had their own piggery. They had cows. I know across the street they had asparagus fields, and I believe this was potato fields over here,” he said. “Eventually it will be developed. It would make a beautiful golf course.  I think it’s too nice of a property not to get developed."

The town is getting inquires about development for the site, especially about renewable energy projects.  So far, there are no formal proposals to develop what the little town of Preston has in mind.