OLD SAYBROOK — More than 50 years ago, when Old Saybrook resident and business owner Sandi Roberts rode each morning down Route 1 East on the school bus, she thought it was the ugliest part of town. The curbside storefronts were not well maintained. There were several abandoned factory buildings. Instead of sidewalks and trees, there were weeds and overgrown grass.
“The area really hasn’t changed too much in my lifetime,” Roberts said. “The town has a spice and character but as you leave town it wanes. I want it to be cohesive with the rest of the town.”
Over the last couple of years a few new businesses, including Enterprise and Blast All, have opened offices in the district, but the area remains unwelcoming to pedestrians, and many of the storefronts, including Roberts’ own, could use a facelift.
Roberts, who is a member of the Old Saybrook Economic Development Commission (EDC), is not alone in wanting to see a faster pace of change. Discussions of rebranding and rebuilding Route 1 East began seven years ago, but the town only opened a search for a developer this spring.
Still at the Beginning
“Nothing has been physically done yet,” said Susie Beckman, the Director of Economic Development in Old Saybrook. “We are probably still at the beginning, but at the beginning of getting people to come in to redevelop.”
According to Matt Pugliese, the chair of the Old Saybrook EDC, it is critical for a town like Old Saybrook which is mostly residential to look for areas with the potential to be redeveloped into business districts.
“In terms of space this is really underutilized at the moment,” Pugliese said. The area of Route 1 East is ideal for development, according to Pugliese, because the land would remain protected from even worst-case projections for sea level rise.
A $200,000 state-funded Cleanup
The town adopted a revitalization plan in 2014 that rebranded this stretch of Route 1 East, between Saybrook Junction and the Ferry Point marina district, “Mariner’s Way.” In 2016, the town received a $200,000 Brownfield Area Revitalization (BAR) Grant from the state to help clean up pollution in the area which has discouraged developers.
The land identified for redevelopment is divided into three parcels. The first, stretches from 330 to 342 Boston Post Road, which the town has valued at $7.75 million. It is a 17.84-acre parcel, subdivided into 9 lots, with a single owner interested to sell. The town has estimated the value of a second 1.76-acre parcel, 43-45 Mill Rock Road East, at $1.25 million. The land currently includes a restaurant, Somsiam. The last and smallest parcel, a .9-acre lot at 245 Boston Post Road includes 3,700 square foot office or retail building, and an estimated price of $600,000.
With funding from the state, the town was able to hire Tighe and Bond engineers and environmental specialists to help determine how much money it would realistically require for the brownfields to be cleaned up and for new construction to begin.
The 17.84-acre parcel, which the town identifies as the most saleable portion of land, is currently contaminated with petroleum, hydrocarbons, VOCs, PCBs, herbicides and a variety of heavy metals. The required remediation and demolition of existing structures alone is expected to cost $1.72 million. Beckman and the EDC, together with a Brookline, Massachusetts based consulting group CivicMoxie, believe they have identified the most viable use for the land.
Aiming for the Unexpected
The goal behind hiring CivicMoxie was to come up with ideas that weren’t the expected, Pugliese said. The EDC is hoping Mariner’s Way will become a regular hangout for local residents, and a destination for tourists to spend a long weekend.
“My mind has gone out into the stratosphere about what this redevelopment could potentially mean,” Beckman said. She eventually settled on a plan for a culinary center. The idea is that the location could not only contain restaurants featuring locally grown food, but a facility with hydroponic or aeroponic food production research and development.
Beckman’s ideas for what this area could contain are endless.
“We could maybe bring in a beer garden, sort of like the Faneuil Hall of Connecticut craft brewers,” Beckman said. “People could come in from all over the state and out of state to try the different breweries from the Connecticut beer and wine trails.”
Others believe that in order to attract millennials to settle and raise their families in Old Saybrook, more practical businesses are needed. “Nobody in town is interested in a big box store opening, but if we got a hotel or a sports complex that could really help families,” Roberts said. Roberts, who raised two of her grandchildren in Old Saybrook, said an in-town sports field is desperately needed. Practices and games are typically far away, she said, putting an added burden onto families.
Rather than committing to one idea, said Pugliese, the plan is more to change zoning regulations to allow for a variety of businesses and possibilities.
Tax Increment Funding
Additionally, as part of the redevelopment effort, the town plans to eventually construct bike paths, sidewalks and “streetscaping.” To encourage current businesses in the area to invest in their properties, the town invested $20,000 of the BAR grant to designate Mariner’s Way as a Tax Increment Funding (TIF) District – a financing plan that would return half of any resulting property tax increases to a fund for the district. Businesses could then apply to a funding committee for aid.
The town has spent $15,000 of the Bar grant to a fund a market effort to keep the ball rolling, but the development will not begin quickly, Beckman warned. “We move at the speed of government.” The goal is to talk to a few potential developers over the next few years.
“All we need is one,” Beckman said. “It’s a matter of finding the right one.”
Susie Beckman and the Old Saybrook Economic Development Commission are encouraging residents to share their ideas for redevelopment in the Mariner’s Way District. You can write them here.