Monday, March 21, 2005

Utopia Studios Referendum Tomorrow

Looking for the May, 2006 referendum? Click here.

Voters to Decide Fate of Property, Town and Region

There is a property on the Norwich-Preston town line where the old Norwich Hospital campus used to be. It has been vacant for nine years. It's a large, attractive piece of land, and development proposals have been floating around it for a long time. Now, a group called Utopia Studios wants to build a theme park, a film college, movie studios and 4,200 hotel rooms on the site. If Preston voters approved the proposal, they would suddenly find themselves sitting on a giant pile of tax money and tourist dollars. The region would be able to slowly start shifting away from its doomed military-based economy towards tourism and the arts. Utopia Studios, to be perfectly frank, is tossing a life preserver to New London County.

But I have a strong feeling that the voters are going to reject the proposal. Remember the Six Flags theme park that was supposed to go in North Stonington? Cranky Yankees there defeated that proposal because of "quality of life" issues (and kept most of their town a quaint backwater), and I suspect that the cranks in Preston, sick of casino development (Preston is located right between Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods), will similarly decide that they'd like to preserve what's left of the "character" of their town. Here is a letter to the editor expressing what I fear will be the prevailing view tomorrow:

In 2001, and as recently as a couple of weeks ago, Preston First Selectman Robert Congdon expressed concerns to the governor of Connecticut about casino-related effects on Preston. Not only were issues of increased traffic volume and compromised resident safety cited, but also critical deficiencies in emergency service, police protection and public works.

Don't you think this billion-dollar beast would create similar issues? Has our selectman stopped caring about our safety? Has he given up on the fabric of our town? The makeup of Preston is in peril, and our selectman is not only letting it happen, he encourages it. (Gallagher)

This is shortsighted at best. Voters in Preston will not only be deciding the fate of their small town, but the fate of an entire region. Let's face facts: the Navy will be leaving Groton sooner or later. Electric Boat has been limping along from contract to contract; we should expect a full closure there, too, as defense contractors consolidate their operations. So what will that leave southeastern Connecticut with besides casinos?

Utopia Studios won't replace the good jobs lost in the region, but it will pump revenue into the local economy and make the area more attractive to live in. As for Mr. Gallagher's concerns (and the concerns of Preston cranks in general), the enormous tax windfall that the town can expect from Utopia, as well as an expected surge in Utopia-related development, will help to offset the costs of expanded services. In fact, Preston First Selectman Robert Congdon has said that the town will be able to dramatically lower its mill rate. (Q&A)

A comparison has often been drawn between this plan and the agreement between the Millstone nuclear plants and the town of Waterford, from which Waterford has benefited enormously. Of course, low property taxes in Waterford led to a development boom, the result of which was haphazard development, the Crystal Mall and a loss of open space. Congdon wants to try to avoid this through buying development rights to farms (Q&A), perhaps through agricultural easements like the one recently agreed upon by Newington, which will address some of the "quality of life" issues Preston voters worry about.

So will it pass? I hope it will. It would be great for Preston and for southeastern Connecticut. But I have serious doubts that the voters of Preston will be able to see beyond their own town, especially after years of suffering from the casinos with no real payoff. I will post results as soon as they become available.

The Day has a great series of articles on this topic (registration required).

Sources: Gallager, Brian. Preston Doesn't Need To Go Hollywood". New London Day 10 March 2005.

"Q&A With Congdon On The Town's Agreement". New London Day 13 March 2005.


LindaCDavis said...

I have a feeling this thing may just pass! As many small towns in Connecticut, Preston has struggled for years trying to provide adequate services while trying to maintain a reasonable tax level. Their budget referendum failed a few weeks ago. While some may prefer the rural nature, the prospect of this cash cow may be too much to resist. As a resident of Ledyard with similar casino issues, I find myself in favor of the project.

Joe said...

As a Preston resident I do not look forward to this at all, but feel that there is no stopping it. This will not mean lower taxes; this will mean sprawl, tens of thousands of low income workers (many with children who will need ESL classes) flocking to the region for work, unbelievable traffic, increased strain on services, property values skyrocketing, sprawl regionwide. Preston will resist the low income housing (screwing Norwich and other towns where low income housing is built for people who work at Utopia in Preston) and become a very rich town. When I say rich I mean the residents are rich, not the town. The piddly (and it is piddly when you compare Utopia taxes to the casino slot fund contributions) taxes that Utopia pays to Preston will be more than offset by the need to upgrade the town's infrastructure, schools, services, etc. This is a quality of life mess and anyone who doesn't think so is either stupid, short-sighted, lying, or simply not paying attention. I do not think my grandchildren will be able to afford to live in Preston unless they make a shitload of money... is that the legacy we want to leave?

Anonymous said...

to the person who wrote the article at the begining of the page..... you have no idea what these studios will do to the people of preston. how can you say that it will do good, it will only do worse. because of the casino, norwich is becoming slummier and slummier. because of the rapid immigration to norwich, our school now has to teach 13 DIFFERENT languages.and to me that is ridiculus. we will see an increase in traffic so high,that every road connecting to the proposed site will be widdened for 4 extra lanes. farms, and fields will be destroyed. and many people will move away. Preston will be a ghost village. even though i live in lisbon, our town will feel the traffic and the immigration also.

Even though this is something new that will bring more atmosphere to the area. it has many more downs than ups. people are blindsided by the glamor and how much stature that it will bring that they dont see that crime will go up so much, that the city of norwich will have to hire a whole new police division focused on that area only. New London County will be changed forever, but unfortunately, ther is no stopping the developers now. whats done is done.