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.