NAUGATUCK — Local business leaders got an update on everything from Renaissance Place to the high school referendum at the Mayoral Luncheon Oct. 27.
Mayor Robert Mezzo spoke to members of the Naugatuck Chamber of Commerce about what he’s done to advance business in the borough over the past year.
The first issue Mezzo addressed was Renaissance Place, which has stalled out in the past few years amongst the economic downturn. Mezzo said the borough has kept up with its portion of the public-private partnership for downtown development, including completing environmental work and studies. Mezzo said the borough is waiting for commitment from the private sector before moving forward with the next steps, which includes designing and building a parking garage on Parcel C. As the borough awaits that commitment, the five year deadline with developer Alex Conroy for a shovel to hit dirt is about to run out.
“The world where it was created no longer exists,” said Mezzo, who added it’s his job to ensure the public money will achieve private investments.
Mezzo said he still believes the project can happen, but acknowledged that it is frustrating for those who have worked on the project. He said he is in constant contact with Conroy to negotiate a way for the project to move forward.
“We can’t simply unwind … a massive development agreement,” Mezzo said.
Despite the struggling economy, Mezzo said there have been some bright spots in Naugatuck over the past year. He pointed to Chemtura, the chemical company that recently expanded its research and development plant in Naugatuck and brought with it 70 jobs from Middlebury.
He said the manufacturing industry in Naugatuck has been doing well, with the help of Dave Prendergast, CEO of the Naugatuck Economic Development Corporation.
“These aren’t huge headline grabbers, but they mean something to each and every one of you,” Mezzo said.
Mezzo said Naugatuck collected $8.1 million in taxes from the Industrial Park last year.
The Planning and Zoning Commission recently approved changes to Naugatuck’s zoning regulations to allow subdivisions in the Industrial Park.
The original plan for the park included two-, five-, and 10-acre lots. Now all lots will have a minimum of two acres, allowing the larger lots to be split into smaller parcels.
Prendergast said he has already talked to three companies interested in subdividing their plots and the NEDC gets several calls a month from businesses looking for smaller lots.
The new regulations will also be more flexible on building size, allowing buildings to take up to 40 percent of the land, instead of 30 percent. Companies will also be allowed to excavate more of the land, removing up to 10,000 cubic yards of soil before they are required to get a special permit.
The changes should expedite the process for companies looking to move into the industrial park, Prendergast said.
Following the economic discussion, Mezzo turned his attention to town government. He told the chamber members that six of the borough’s seven bargaining units have switched form traditional pensions to defined benefit plans similar to 401(k)s.
“Long after I’m gone and the boards that approved these agreements are gone, that’s going to pay substantial dividends to the taxpayers of the borough of Naugatuck,” Mezzo said.
He said his administration has also worked to reduce increases in the cost of health care.
Mezzo said a key goal of his this year is to hire an outside company to a strategic plan for Naugatuck to see what the town can do to run more efficiently and effectively. He said public officials have a wealth of good ideas, but not always the plan to implement them.
“Everybody wants change until it happens,” Mezzo said.
He said the strategic plan would give the borough a clear outline of how to move the town forward.
Mezzo also served up some tidbits on education in Naugatuck.
He said the Board of Education has undergone a structural and cultural change that has brought it out of the controversy it was mired in last year. In the 2009-10 budget year, the school board came out of a potential $2 million deficit to end with a small surplus. He said mistrust between the municipality and school board is dissipating and the board is more willing to think creatively.
“That relationship is starting to heal itself,” Mezzo said.
Mezzo touched briefly on the high school renovations plans, which are heading for referendum Nov. 8. He said it is time for the building, which was built in 1959, with an addition in 1974, to undergo renovation and address long-standing structural problems.
Mezzo said the renovated high school would boost outside perception of the town and property values.
“Sometimes you invest when it’s a smart time for the benefit of the future,” Mezzo said.
After the speech, James McCowan of J&M Automotive said he thought Naugatuck was heading in the right direction.
“I think they’re starting to think more like a business with their financial decisions,” McCowan said.
Lynn Ward, director of the Naugatuck Chamber of Commerce, said the mayor is focused on economic development, which is the key to a thriving town.
“The residents are fortunate to have (Mezzo) as their mayor,” Ward said.