First step toward $500,000 federal grant

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NAUGATUCK — Small actions can sometimes trigger larger and more substantial reactions. The Borough of Naugatuck and all those involved in the implementation of Renaissance Place, the planned, $710 million downtown revitalization project, are hoping that will be the case in the near future.

The U.S. Senate Appropriations Subcommittee last week approved federal funding in the amount of $500,000 for the Renaissance Place transportation facility.

The funding measure still has to advance through several steps in the legislative process before it is fully approved. The appropriations bill has been sent to the conference committee, and will need to pass both chambers of Congress as well as the president, a process that can take several months. If approved, the federal funding would be released in the 2011 calendar year.

The transportation facility, a parking garage slated for Parcel C, a borough-owned tract at the corner of Maple and Water Streets, will serve the parking needs of a state-of-the-art medical center which Saint Mary’s Health System has agreed to build there.

The amount is a fraction of the $3 million the borough requested and a drop in the bucket for the parking garage, which has a projected price tag of about $10 million, but borough officials hope the backing of the federal government will help open investors’ eyes and generate more monetary support.

“I think now more than ever, given the state of our economy, tangible public supports and partnerships make it easier to obtain private investment,” Mayor Robert Mezzo said. “Investors in this current credit market are being very cautious as to what types of projects they’re willing to back. Knowing that the state and/or federal governments are behind a project sends a strong message to the investment community that Renaissance Place is the type of project worthy of their dollars.”

Along with numerous applications for federal funding, the borough is also looking for state grants from Hartford and investments from the private sector. The $500,000, if ultimately granted, may encourage those parties.

“It’s a good step to show the private sector who may be looking to invest,” said Dave Prendergast, CEO of the quasi-public Naugatuck Economic Development Corporation. “It’s also big to get federal money when we are also seeking money from the state. The more commitments we have, the more strength the project has.”

There is no definitive timetable for a final decision on the funding, but the Board of Mayor and Burgesses should have a clearer picture in the next two months. Mezzo said the appropriations subcommittee’s approval is a good sign, but acknowledged the money is not in the borough’s pocket just yet.

“We’re cautiously optimistic at this point,” Mezzo said. “There are many steps in the process and certainly many bumps in the road that can happen but we’re very hopeful that this will be a significant step in getting this project started.”

The borough is currently drafting an application for more federal funding through the Economic Development Agency. Each pool of state and federal money has diverse requirements and limitations, so the borough is trying to fund all the different facets of Renaissance Place by tapping the appropriate state or federal entity that can grant funding for each specific purpose.

“I understand both Washington and Hartford have limited resources and have their share of issues that they’re dealing with, but you are still seeing projects funded in Connecticut,” Mezzo said. “What differentiates Renaissance Place from some other projects I’ve seen receiving dollars is that it has a tremendous capacity to create jobs and inject badly-needed tax revenue into what’s essentially a distressed municipality.”

Officials acknowledged that the federal funding could be a springboard, but no one is getting overly excited and knows full well it is a step in the right direction but the first of many steps still to come.

“Anytime you can see some influx of money it’s a great sign,” Mayoral Aide Edward Carter said. “We have to realize it’s a long way to go for full funding but it gets the ball rolling a bit and gives you the dollars to get the project beginning. It’s a sign the initial round of funding is on its way.”

Mezzo echoed this statement.

“We are actively in need of engineering and design of a parking structure,” he said. “This will certainly allow us to begin that process. But frankly, a half a million dollars is far from symbolic. … I think the fact that the federal government would commit a half-million dollars to Naugatuck sends a strong message that this is the kind of project that it has been telling communities to pursue for many years. Now the money is in the conversation.”