Naugatuck, Waterbury keen on regional development

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WATERBURY — The Board of Aldermen on May 20 committed Waterbury to a new development agency aimed at promoting regional economic development efforts.

All that’s required now is the blessing of Naugatuck officials, in votes by the borough’s economic development board and Board of Mayor and Burgesses. Naugatuck Mayor N. Warren “Pete” Hess, speaking at Waterbury’s meeting, said he’s committed to seeing that happen.

“We fully endorse this regional concept,” Hess said. “Naugatuck is a small city. We don’t have the (political) juice of Waterbury. I just can’t call the governor and ask for things.”

At least not alone.

Waterbury officials have been successful in recent years getting state taxpayer grants to fully fund or heavily subsidize development projects: including $7.7 million for redevelopment of a massive former department store downtown; $10 million to redevelop another large downtown property; $2.2 million for rebuilding the city’s downtown Green; $4 million to rebuild a section of downtown East Main Street, among several other costly projects.

Hess spoke of state officials’ receptiveness when he and Waterbury Mayor Neil M. O’Leary went in tandem to ask for $2.8 million to help develop a wooded parcel of roughly 160 acres that Waterbury owns on either side of the town line. The municipalities have agreed to share resulting tax revenue.

“When we were there together they really listened and gave us everything we were looking for,” Hess said.

For Naugatuck, the regional development agency could mean more political backing for much-desired projects, including development of vacant industrial properties along the Waterbury branch of the Metro-North Railroad and the creation of the “Port of Naugatuck,” an inland port where international goods would be processed through a customs outfit at a rail station.

Hess, speaking outside last week’s meeting, said he expects votes by the Naugatuck boards before the end of summer.

For Waterbury, the partnership is meant to help push smart regional development, and better match the priorities of an increasingly cash-strapped state administration.

“This is the time for us to get the message out to the State of Connecticut that we are willing to embrace their vision,” O’Leary said.

The partnership will begin with Naugatuck and Waterbury. Other towns could join later.

First Naugatuck and Waterbury would adopt the nonprofit Naugatuck Valley Development Corp. — which had once served as Waterbury’s development agency. The nonprofit, which will rebrand as the NVRDC, will then be able to apply for state and federal grants; handling money and overseeing projects for its client municipalities.

The NVDC will also bring more than $2 million in assets, in cash and properties.

O’Leary and his top economic minds, including Webster Bank Regional President Michael O’Connor and former Webster CEO Jim Smith, have spent more than a year planning the move.

Both Waterbury and Naugatuck will maintain their independent economic development agencies. The Waterbury Development Corp. staff, however, will also work for the new NVRDC, which will share offices.

Naugatuck Economic Development Corporation CEO Ronald J. Pugliese said, in a subsequent phone interview, he believes in regionalization and feels it’s vital for economic development. Pugliese pointed to the proposed “Port of Naugatuck,” saying the project would not only benefit Naugatuck, but it would have a ripple effect throughout surrounding communities.

“I would like to see this happen,” he said about the new development agency. “I don’t think there’s a better partner for Naugatuck than Waterbury.”

Pugliese said the state is always pushing for more regionalization, which some municipalities reject.

“The fact that Waterbury and Naugatuck want to do it, I think is a great move,” he said.

The only new expense will be the hiring of a CEO for the new agency. Officials were unable to put a dollar figure on that expense last week or say just how much of the expense would be born by participating communities. The NVDC will subsidize the expense, at least in the first year, from its reserves, O’Connor said.

Elio Gugliotti contributed to this article.