Officials working to move on after Renaissance Place
NAUGATUCK — For the better part of a decade, the borough placed its hopes and dreams for a revitalized downtown in the hands of a developer named Alexius Conroy and his dream of a project he called Renaissance Place.
But that dream has crashed, and borough leaders are quietly crafting a new one.
The deep recession, and Conroy’s inability to attract investors, doomed the four-phase, $710 million Renaissance Place plan, leaving Naugatuck in the same boat it paddled during much of the 1990s and early 2000s: The downtown commercial scene, once vibrant when industry boomed and factory workers flooded stores on Church and Maple streets, still struggles.
With very little fanfare, borough leaders have been trying to craft a rescue plan.
Two officials say sincere efforts are being made to bring quality commercial and residential development to the downtown area. Mayor Robert Mezzo, a founding member of the Naugatuck Economic Development Corporation, and NEDC CEO Ron Pugliese say there have been ongoing discussions with developers interested in building on Parcel C, the long-vacant 2-acre swath on the corner of Maple and Water streets, and on Parcel B, an 8-acre parcel where the General DataComm building sits.
It has been an open secret in local government circles that Pustola & Associates Engineers/Constructors of Naugatuck have discussed a mixed-use — residential and commercial — project for Parcel C and possible projects for other areas of downtown. Steve Pustola, a civil and structural engineer who heads the company, confirmed that he has discussed some ideas with borough leaders. However, he said he was not in a position to discuss details publicly.
Pustola, who has been in the business for 26 years, is well known in Connecticut and Westchester County, N.Y. The company’s portfolio on its website describes dozens of projects including municipal buildings, offices, warehouses, healthcare facilities, industrial buildings and religious facilities.
A few projects that stand out include one called “i-park Norwalk” in which Pustola & Associates was contracted to convert an existing 375,000-square-foot office and industrial complex into upscale medical and office space.
Local officials say they appreciate that Pustola is local — Steve Pustola lives in Naugatuck — and has a stake in the game, so to speak. Still, the borough is keeping its options open.
“I can confirm that we’ve had discussions with Mr. Pustola on a regular basis, but there are still other interested parties and there is no exclusive arrangement at this point,” Mezzo said.
He would not name the other developers.
Mezzo admitted the long wait for downtown development has been somewhat frustrating because he, as much as anyone, wants to see a shovel in the ground. He frequently discusses the many complexities that go into developing something that will enhance the downtown area and, simultaneously, complement existing businesses. He often says that if Naugatuck wanted a big box store on its prime real estate downtown, it would have gone up a long time ago.
“It’s not as simple as saying we want a particular kind of development and have it magically begin in a short period of time,” he said. “If it was, we would have done it by now.”
Among the biggest challenges, he said, is finding a developer who wants the same things for downtown that officials want, which is “smart growth” development that has areas for people to “live, work and play” in the same district. Officials also believe the residential component is necessary to bring a steady flow of patrons to stores and restaurants.
“Naugatuck is not in Fairfield County, therefore the numbers that make certain projects work in a wealthier part of the state don’t necessarily yield the same kinds of profits in Naugatuck and in some situations, make investors less likely to invest,” Mezzo said.
State aid, or lack thereof, hasn’t helped, either, Mezzo said.
He said state officials, who constantly preach the need for transit-oriented development oriented around rail lines, have invested very little into the Waterbury-to-Bridgeport Metro-North line.
“We’ve shown studies that there is a market for public transportation in the Naugatuck Valley, and unfortunately, as a state, we’ve decided to focus our resources elsewhere,” he said.
Pugliese reiterated that state investment into the rail line is critical.
However, downtown Naugatuck, right off of Route 8, is easy to access. That, combined with the fact that the borough is close to wealthier communities, can be attractive for developers, even those who are skeptical about the demographics in Naugatuck. The median household income here is $63,414, below the state average of $69,243, according to the Connecticut Economic Resource Center.
“And we’re coming off the worst recession since the Great Depression,” Pugliese said. “I think things are slowly getting better, but that is a factor because developers are not doing the big projects they were 10, 15 years ago. … That said, I’m still extremely confident that within a reasonable amount of time, we’re going to break ground with projects” in the downtown area.