Groton — With thousands of hires expected at Electric Boat in the coming decade, Jon Reiner, Director of Planning and Development for the Town of Groton, describes his work as “setting the table” for investment in housing, business opportunities and redevelopment of older buildings and neighborhoods. Reiner, who was hired by the town in 2014, said his focus has been on finding out what Groton residents want and shaping the town’s future through marketing and zoning tools that attract the right kind of investment.
Marketing the town
When he took his job with Groton five years ago, the town lacked a local, regional and national marketing campaign for town-owned properties in need of redevelopment, he said.
“We had no marketing program at all — it was just word of mouth. The way town had marketed these properties before was the same way they’d market an excess vehicle — they’d put an RFP out and wait for someone to bid on it and do no marketing,” he said.
“Historically, we had an economic specialist that worked for the town and then we realized that one person didn’t really have direction from anybody about economic development… so I brought on another staff person as economic and community development manager.”
Being an active partner in the marketing process is key, said Reiner. “We need to just not say, oh well, we’re selling and then it’s up to the market to dictate it. We need to be an active partner with it. Municipalities need to do that better if they’re looking for a certain quality or type of development.”
Redevelopment of Schools
“Most New England municipalities are dealing with this issue of closing schools that are usually in some of the best areas of our towns. A lot are based off of this village-style development that would have been walkable at one time, or maybe it still is but not as much. As the school population goes down and we’re moving toward larger regional schools, they’re closing a lot of neighborhood schools — you’re seeing a lot of this everywhere,” he said.
In Groton, Reiner said the town is working to redevelop a number of school properties including the Mystic Education Center, the William Seely School, Fitch Middle School, Groton Heights School, Colonel Ledyard School, and Pleasant Valley School, as well as properties at 517 and 529 Gold Star Highway.
Affordable housing and development
While many rural and suburban communities need more affordable housing, 21% of Groton’s year-round housing is affordable, but more variety in housing and housing options is needed, he said.
“Economic development doesn’t necessarily mean business. If you look, multi-family housing pays an incredible amount of taxes generally for the services it requires. Most of this whole area in southern New England needs a lot more one and two bedroom units. We don’t need more three and four bedroom homes, we have plenty of those — that’s what was built historically in the last 60 or 70 years since WWII. We need more duplexes, cottage style houses, smaller footprint units.”
In terms of water and sewer capacity, Groton has legacy infrastructure from Pfizer’s manufacturing usage and will not need to buy more capacity from New London, Reiner said.
“We have a ton of water capacity, and a lot of sewer capacity. Back in the day, [Pfizer] used a lot of water and that was all running through the sewers and [now] they use much less than before,” Reiner said. “Will some lines or pump stations need to be upgraded? I’m sure, but that’s just what happens as development happens in the areas where you need it.”
Tax increment financing
Tax increment financing (TIF) is a public financing method that refunds a portion of investors’ taxes as a subsidy for redevelopment, community-improvement or infrastructure projects.
When used correctly, TIF can create the incentive and the means for developers to complete projects that might not otherwise come to fruition, Reiner said.
For example, a property might pay $500,000 per year in taxes and, once redeveloped, would pay $2 million per year. A TIF agreement might give back $1 million per year for 12 years to the developer, netting the town an additional $500,000 during that time period. After 12 years, the property would pay the town the full $2 million in taxes.
Many projects never come to fruition because “when you actually start crunching the numbers it doesn’t pan out in the black — that’s why Tax Increment Financing is so critical because that redevelopment project might be paying the town $2 million a year in taxes if it’s built out in that new form and fashion whereas that property might pay the town $500,000 in taxes. Without the town partnering with the developer and doing a TIF, that development will never happen,” he said. “That’s why if TIF and tools like it were used right, and not abused, they can be great things, but they’re tools, and I’m not going to take a hammer to drive a screw, I need a screwdriver and that’s why we have TIF.”
Zoning process changes
Groton’s zoning commission will merge with its planning commission on August 1. “This is an experiment we’re diving into,” Reiner said.
In 2015-2016, a market analysis and a regulatory audit looking at the town’s zoning revealed that Groton’s zoning regulations hadn’t been updated in 30 years, he said.
“Frankly the zoning regulatory processes that we’ve created over the past 50 years is inherently an adversarial process that we have to fight through, as opposed to how can we work this amongst us and come up with a product that’s great for everybody, that meets the goals of the town’s Plan of Conservation and Development?”
Choosing a direction
To forge a successful future, communities need to be “really honest with themselves about what they want and what they don’t want,” said Reiner, who worked for five municipalities and one state agency in Rhode Island before taking his position with Groton.
“If you don’t want this, just say you don’t want this — say you don’t want that walkable, bikeable village and rezone your town to what it is that you want,” he said. “But it comes down to that so many places know what they don’t want but they have no idea what they do want.”
In his 20-year career as a town planner, Reiner said he has made a practice of learning from other municipalities’ successes and failures. “How do we know what to do? We look at what other municipalities have done… what succeeded… what didn’t work and what epically failed. We learn best from our epic fails and from other people’s failures.”
For his staff in Groton, he said he has hired “a team of people who are all go-getters.”
“There are 15 of us between planning, zoning, community development, economic development and inspections so it’s the whole gamut of things in a large town, everyone wants to be there everyday,” he said. “I have a great town manager right now and great elected officials who are supporting these things. I kind of have a perfect storm of positivity.”