MIDDLETOWN — City officials are seeking a referendum in the November election to approve a $55 million bond that will go toward developing properties and improving public infrastructure in Middletown’s downtown and riverfront areas.
The bond includes $15 million for road paving and sidewalk maintenance, $20 million for public parking, $5 million for riverfront development, $12,212,717 for the redevelopment of City Hall and $1.5 million for the construction of a recreation center. The borrowing, which would be spent over 10 years, also includes $1 million to pay for the cost of bonding.
“The opportunity to put shovels in the ground on some of these projects is really right around the corner,” said Middletown Mayor Ben Florsheim, in a Facebook Live Town Hall meeting on Tuesday night.
Larry McHugh, president of the Middlesex Chamber of Commerce, told CT Examiner that the chamber is “fully committed” to the project. The group’s central business bureau voted unanimously on Tuesday in support of the project.
According to McHugh, it’s an ideal time to undertake an infrastructure project, and given the city’s AAA credit rating, interest rates on the bond are low — 1 percent or less.
He said he expects the project to “add a lot of jobs, taxes and excitement to the city.”
Middletown revenues totalled $227.2 million in fiscal year 2019.
Florshiem told CT Examiner that the city is currently paying off two other bonds — one for $33 million for public parks, and the other for $68 million for the new middle school.
Florshiem said he hoped that taxes and mill rates wouldn’t need to be raised to pay off the bond, but that the financial impacts of the coronavirus will leave the city with “tight budget cycles” for the next few years.
According to Florsheim, investment in infrastructure is one of the only ways that taxes can drop in the future.
“It will allow us to break through that ceiling on economic development … and increase our tax base and bring in a lot more tax dollars that allows us to lower the burden on the individual taxpayers,” said Florsheim.
He estimates that each of the projects could bring in millions of dollars in revenue once completed.
“It’s only by making, I think, some smart public investments now that we can reap those benefits down the line,” he added. “And I don’t think it’s like a distant-in-the-future thing. I think that we’ll immediately start feeling the economic effect of these projects once they get underway.”
The largest portion of the bond is earmarked for additional public parking, which McHugh said has been a problem in the city for years. The demand for parking, he said, had increased with the expansion of businesses in the downtown area.
“Traffic can be a good problem to have,” said Florshiem, “Because it means there’s a lot of people who want to come to town.” But he said that limited public parking is a significant obstacle to welcoming new apartment complexes or businesses.
A city analysis completed in 2008 found that a new parking garage was necessary in order to keep up with the city’s parking needs. The city commissioned the engineering firm URS to design several proposals, one of which would be located at the municipal parking lot on Dingwall Drive.
The firm estimated that a 500-space parking garage would cost about $17.5 million, or around $3,500 per parking spot.
The city hopes to use state and federal funding to offset the costs. Florshiem said he applied for a $20 million Urban Act grant from the state, which he said would allow the project to move along more quickly. He also plans to use $6 million of federal money the city had set aside for eventual parking improvements.
Florshiem said that the town wants to partner with the Middletown regional transit system to consider other modes of transportation. One proposal under consideration is a bike-share program.
“We definitely want to be thinking about alternative transportation as being part of downtown as well, because a lot of these residents that are going to want to live downtown are also going to want to be able to do it without having a car,” he said.
Moving City Hall
The mayor has proposed moving the government offices from the current City Hall building, located at 245 Dekoven Drive, to the old Citizen’s Bank building at 227 Main Street.
“[The City Hall building] is still in reasonably good shape, but it is too small for functioning as a modern government building,” Florshiem said at the town hall meeting.
Florshiem said that the move would free up the city hall building for redevelopment. He said he’d like to see an anchor retail store in that location, or possibly a grocery store. Housing, he said, could be another option.
“I’ve heard suggestions for a hotel. I’ve heard suggestions for a concert or entertainment venue,” he said. “I think it’s going to be … a combination of a few different things.”
According to Florshiem, the move to the new City Hall building won’t happen before 2024. The current lease expires in 2023.
McHugh also warmly endorsed the move. “That, I feel, to be honest, will open up the best site in the state of Connecticut,” he said.
McHugh said that there was a need for apartment buildings in the downtown area, as people were looking to move into the city.
Joseph Samolis, Middletown’s director of Planning, Conservation and Development, estimated that if a developer was to invest 40 million dollars in the City Hall building, it could produce $1.5 million annually in additional tax revenue.
The city is also looking to develop the former Arcade property at the corner of Dingwall Drive and Dekoven Drive, located behind the police station and adjacent to the municipal courthouse. Florshiem said he sees this as an ideal multi-use site.
One proposal for the property includes three different types of rental housing surrounding a public courtyard, along with a retail component facing inward toward the courtyard. The site would also include a parking garage, and Florsheim said they would be ready to begin work on it as early as the spring of 2021.
A portion of the funding will be directed toward a plan for developing the riverfront. Florshiem said that some riverfront property owners have recently expressed interest in selling land to the city.
“We think it’s really important to take advantage of this opportunity and grab those properties,” Florshiem said in a recent meeting at City Hall.
One of the properties is the former Jackson Corrugated Container, located at 225 River Road. The property is currently approved for a housing development, but Florshiem said that if the city was able to purchase it, he would also consider a commercial use for the property. Florsheim said that he is also looking at an adjacent property on River Road as a potential location for a parking lot.
He said that the city would be ready to purchase those properties “more or less immediately.”
In addition to purchasing the land, Florshiem said, the bond will also create a fund for “land banking” — money put aside to acquire properties as they become available.
Samolis said that many of the riverfront properties were previously industrial sites, and would need to go through an environmental clean-up process before any construction could take place.
He said that the city had received a $300,000 federal assessment grant from the Environmental Protection Agency. That funding will be spent determining what types of environmental clean-ups are needed on each property. He said he hopes to be done with any remediation within the next year to year and a half.
While encouraging commercial or residential development, Florsheim said that his main goal for the riverfront was to create public spaces. He envisions hiking and cycling trails and “park-like places.” He said he doesn’t want the riverfront to be exclusive.
“It’s really important to me that we keep the riverfront, in general, sort of a public space — something that is accessible to everybody,” he said.
The city plans to hire a consultant to draw up a master plan for the land use. Samolis said he anticipates hosting meetings with stakeholders and community members to come up with a concrete plan for development.
A recreational center, roads and sidewalks
Another portion of the borrowing is earmarked for building a recreational center at the site of the Woodrow Wilson Middle School on Hunting Hill Avenue.
After the new Beman Middle School opens in the fall of 2021, the city plans to demolish the majority of the Woodrow Wilson Middle School. The newer section of the building housing the former middle school’s pool and gymnasium will be kept and expanded into a full recreational center that can host community programming. Florsheim said that construction would begin in 2022 or 2023.
Samolis said he thought the recreational center was a big selling point for the community. “I think people are excited about it,” he said.
The bond also sets aside funds for paving, sidewalk and curb maintenance for 77 roads in the city.