NAUGATUCK — As his second term in office comes to an end, Mayor N. Warren “Pete” Hess feels he has unfinished business.
Hess, a 70-year-old Democrat, will get the chance to continue his work. He is unopposed for a third straight term as mayor.
“I look at it as if I ran once and it’s my job to finish the job, and it’s not done yet,” Hess said.
After graduating from Naugatuck High School, Hess studied finance at Boston University and went on to graduate from the University of San Francisco School of Law. He practiced law from 1973 until winning his first term as mayor in 2015.
As he prepares for a third term, two major development projects top his list of unfinished business — a proposed intermodal transportation hub dubbed “the Port of Naugatuck” and a transit-oriented development project downtown.
The intermodal transportation hub is planned for a roughly 88-acre parcel off Elm Street the borough agreed to buy from Lanxess Corporation, the successor of Chemtura Corp., for a dollar. The site sits along the Pan Am Railways line that stretches from southern Connecticut to Canada and connects with Portland, Maine.
The plan is companies in Maine and other New England states will send goods via freight train to Naugatuck, where they can be stored in warehouses and loaded on trucks and distributed throughout the tri-state area. Also, Hess envisions the hub as a facility that can handle international goods that come into ports in New York and Newark, N.J. The goods would be transported to Naugatuck via truck, go through customs, then be shipped north via freight train.
“The creation of the first intermodal facility in Naugatuck will bring development to Naugatuck and a vertical buildout throughout the region, which will be beneficial to Naugatuck, the Valley and to the entire state of Connecticut,” Hess said.
Hess estimates the project will take $156 million to build. He said most of the money is in place between the borough, Pan Am Railroads and private investors. The borough is also asking the state to contribute $30 million and pursuing a $25 million federal grant to build a rail spur, he said. He estimated the borough’s share could range from nothing to $10 million.
The transit-oriented development project focuses on developing the former General DataComm building — now the Naugatuck Event Center — at 6 Rubber Ave. and the adjacent parking lot. Locally, the properties are referred to as parcels A and B.
Hess said he’s working with the state to get more frequent and reliable train service for the Waterbury branch of the Metro-North Railroad, which officials feel is key to developing the land.
The state Department of Transportation is working on a $70 million signalization project. The project involves installing passing sidings on the diesel-only railroad, which would allow trains to run in both directions at the same time.
Hess said what’s missing is additional rail cars.
The DOT has funding to acquire 60 cars for Shore Line East and the newly-opened Hartford Line, but the agency lacks money for the remaining 50 cars that would serve the Waterbury and Danbury lines. While the DOT waits to secure funding for the full fleet of new trains, the agency previously said it’s trying to work out plans to allocate two of the new train sets purchased to the Waterbury line.
Hess said waiting for the improvements to the rail line will result in a better development in the end.
“Today, I could develop parcels A and B and do a really nice project,” Hess said. “But several years from today, with frequent train service, I could create a spectacular project. My view is that we should make every effort to do the spectacular project.”
Hess refers to these two projects as “game-changers” that will make it easier for the borough to reduce the tax rate by generating revenue.
The tax rate is 47.25 mills, which is among the highest in the state. The rate was 48.55 mills when Hess first took office. During his time in office, Hess said the borough has invested in infrastructure and capital items that he feels had been neglected. He said he wants the tax rate to be in the 30s, but that will take time and effort.
“We’re nowhere near to where we need to be to have the type of mill rate that I feel will be acceptable,” Hess said.
While the transportation hub and transit-oriented development projects are the most high profile projects in the works, Hess feels there are a variety of other projects and developments going on that are helping to steer the borough in the right direction.
Hess said the borough is working to help facilitate a sale of the former Peter Paul property, which is owned by Hershey Corp., on New Haven Road. He also pointed to Culture Fresh Foods, a producer of plant-based, non-dairy spoonable and spreadable foods, buying the former YoCrunch plant facility on Spring Street.
Another project on the horizon is the reconstruction of Rubber Avenue from Elm Street to Melbourne Street. The project, which is slated to start next year, will include drainage improvement and façade improvements.
Hess said the borough is working to relocate public works facilities from Rubber Avenue. The properties will then be sold to get them on the tax rolls and help revitalize Rubber Avenue.
The goal, Hess said, is too aim high.
“We’re not trying to hit a double or a triple,” he said. “We’re going for a grand slam.”