Feb. 19--NORWICH -- City officials Tuesday asked U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., for support for proposed upgrades to the New England Central Railroad, better grant and loan programs for urban developers and assistance to get the historic Uncas Leap area named as a national heritage site.
Blumenthal's stop in Norwich was the first in his plan to meet with new mayors and first selectmen elected in November.
Tuesday's snowstorm caused Blumenthal to be delayed for an hour in getting to Norwich and forced cancellation of a planned visit with downtown developers.
But one downtown developer brought his concerns to Blumenthal directly. Rahul Chadha, a partner in Stamford-based JMD Manor LLC, a family business that purchased the Fairhaven apartment building, expressed frustration at federal and state business assistance programs that leave his project out of the loop.
Chadha's firm bought the Fairhaven for $84,900 in December, but he said renovations are expected to cost about $1 million. Installing a new elevator alone is expected to be "three times the purchase price," he told Blumenthal. The building has been condemned for several years and had been ransacked repeatedly by vandals and metal thieves.
Chadha and Norwich Community Development Corp. officials told Blumenthal that the Fairhaven doesn't qualify for most Small Business Administration programs, because the urban commercial building has both apartments and commercial space -- not one or the other. State programs offer high 6 to 7 percent interest rates, and while low-income affordable housing credits might be available, Chadha wants to renovate the building for market rate housing.
NCDC Vice President Jason Vincent recommended that the SBA give priority to "distressed, urban, mixed-use" redevelopment projects that define downtown buildings.
Mayor Deberey Hinchey said Norwich is fortunate to still have many of its historic downtown buildings, but renovating them for modern uses is expensive. She said Chadha's plans would help lower Broadway become a more vibrant downtown block, with the renovated Wauregan Hotel apartments across the street and Norwich Arts Center and other art galleries in the vicinity.
Hinchey and City Manager Alan Bergren met with Blumenthal after a morning meeting of the Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments. At that meeting, U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, heard requests for federal support of a plan to upgrade the New England Central Railroad from New London through Montville, Norwich and several northeastern towns to Massachusetts.
Hinchey and Bergren repeated that request to Blumenthal. The railroad line owner, Genesee & Wyoming Inc., is expected to apply for funding through the Transportation Investment in Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant program for the project.
Courtney said the U.S. Department of Transportation has $600 million in TIGER grant money available, and the application process is expected to be highly competitive.
"That $600 million for the whole country is going to go fast," Courtney said, "and there will be applications from other parts of Connecticut, let alone the rest of the country."
Local municipalities have pledged to send letters of support once the railroad company submits an application. Blumenthal, who sits on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said support from the local towns would be helpful.
Hinchey then asked Blumenthal for support for a plan to enhance the historic Uncas Leap area of the Yantic River, a natural rocky gorge where a key 17th-century battle was fought between the Mohegan and Narragansett tribes.
A committee of project advocates has been working on a master plan to improve the area and asked Blumenthal for assistance in getting the National Park Service to provide signs to define the area and publicity to raise awareness of the historical significance of the site.
Participants briefly joked about touring the site Tuesday, and Blumenthal -- who has visited Uncas Leap in the past -- said he would gladly return in warmer weather for a walk along the city's established heritage trail that snakes through the historic Yantic River mill village and connects the Upper Falls Heritage Park with Uncas Leap, the Mohegan Tribe's memorial and Norwich Harbor.
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