Family History Fuels Kevin Brown’s Vision for Norwich

Kevin Brown, president and executive director of the Norwich Community Development Corporation and former chairman of the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority, stands on the same corner of downtown Norwich where his grandfather, shown in the picture, who worked for Norwich Light and Power, was photographed holding one of the city's acorn lights (CT Examiner).


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NORWICH —  Every section of Norwich holds both personal meaning and economic potential for Kevin Brown, who looked over a map of the city in his office a few days before Christmas. 

He pointed to the old textile mills along the Shetucket River that are, one by one, being rehabbed for their “highest and best use” as residential or multiuse spaces. 

Though the mill buildings are significant in the city’s history, they’re not practical for meeting today’s industrial, warehousing and manufacturing standards, said Brown, who is president and executive director of the Norwich Community Development Corporation and former chairman of the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority. 

Brown also mentioned the northern Occum section of the city, which is slated for a 384-acre office business park that he said will be more efficient for development than attempting to rehab mill buildings into modern manufacturing spaces.

“A development of this scale is the kind of thing this town needs,” he said. “Instead of trying to remediate an old mill and fight your way through brownfield remediation, which can be difficult, this is an opportunity to start from available real estate, where ground up build is much more feasible, less costly, and fewer obstacles.”

Private development investment, Brown said, could represent up to $300 million in warehouse or manufacturing centers on the site. He said the 384 acres will allow for more than 1 million square feet of floor space for development. 

Norwich is consistently ranked on a list of most distressed communities in Connecticut. But in the Gilded Age, it was a rich, small city with numerous textile mills hydro-powered by the Shetucket River. 

“Again, as we balance how to do this development that can fix this distressed community situation, this area represents the possibility for maybe 1,800 jobs and as much as $4 million to $9 million a year in tax revenue when fully built out,” he said. 

Brown said the Ponemah Mill is in the process of being repurposed as residential housing, with 360 units, including 180 designated as affordable, eventually totalling 447 units. 

“So far, that’s been about $111 million of investment in that old textile mill to turn it into significant affordable housing,” he said. 

He said Norwich needs to create opportunities for economic development at a large scale.

“Because we need the jobs that it creates, we need the grand list growth that it creates, and we need the concomitant tax revenues that come from that grand list growth. Because we need to balance the scales on this tax burdened, distressed community of Norwich. And the assets are there, repurposing those old mills and using the available, undeveloped green space that can produce revenues and jobs,” he said. 

A mission to undertake

Tacked to the wall in Brown’s office was a black and white photo of his grandfather standing at the corner of Franklin and Main streets in Norwich. 

“That’s my grandfather hanging an acorn light out in front of the Woolworth Building in the 1950s. He worked for Norwich light and power,” Brown told CT Examiner. “We can even go stand on the street where that lamppost is great. I’ve wanted to do that.”

Brown said his father’s family is Irish, a longtime Norwich family with roots in the Greenville section of town that he described as the “most distressed census tract in this town.” 

“On the other side of the family, my mother was one of the Mohegan tribal Nonners, one of the respected women of the tribe. My mom and dad met, they went to Norwich Free Academy right here in town,” he said. “My dad quit high school and joined the service in World War II, ended up serving in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, which took our family away from Connecticut, off and on cycling around the world.”

When Brown’s father retired in 1975, the family moved back to Connecticut into his grandparents’ house. Then the family built a house on Fielding Terrace in Uncasville, which Brown said was “moving home to the Reservation.” 

“Fielding is one of our tribal names … and I delivered the Norwich Bulletin as a kid on that street. Eight of my 15 customers were Mohegan tribal families on that dead end street. It was almost its own little tribal Reservation at that time,” he said.

Brown emphasized it was important to remember that the land where Norwich sits was owned by the Mohegan Tribe and was deeded in 1659 by Uncas, a sachem of the Mohegan Tribe, to the settlers of the city. 

The day he was hired by the Norwich development corporation — July 6, 2021 — he toured the space located in Foundry66 on Franklin Street, which is the old Norwich Bulletin building. 

When he came across the same office where he used to drop off his paperboy money, he asked if it was available. 

“I said, ‘I’ll take it.’” Brown said. “So I’m sitting in the office where I used to drop off my paperboy money from delivering the Norwich Bulletin, on the street where my tribal families used to live in my town, where my grandfather used to hang lights, and grew up with our family in the Greenville neighborhood. The point is, I feel like I belong here and I feel like I have a mission to undertake.”

Brown praised Norwich’s decision to embrace the newly legal marijuana industry, saying it could provide jobs and opportunities for those who were formerly incarcerated.  

“If there is something to be gained for it in the realm of lifting this distressed community, then we should get on board with it,” he said. 

He said marijuana-related industries, like cultivation, also require high utility usage, which will benefit Norwich because it has its own municipal utility authority. It would also produce municipal taxes of 3 percent of all gross sales, he said. 

Brown said Norwich has one cannabis cultivator who will likely be operational in March, two others finalizing locations, and a potential fourth in the wings.

“We also have one adult-use retail operation up and running now; it opened in April of this year [2023]. And we have the potential for a second one landing in town,” he said. 

Finding funding

Through the American Rescue Plan Act, Brown said the city gave the development corporation $3.5 million to reinvigorate first-floor businesses. Sixty-eight businesses applied and 18 were awarded funding; 10 of the awards went to historically disadvantaged populations, he said, including LGBTQ, minority-owned, veteran-owned, or a combination.

Brown called the number of potential projects and applicants a “good news/bad news story.”

“It means that there’s a lot of demand out there,” Brown said. “It means we really need … the ability to keep this momentum, which has to come from only a handful of places. Either the city bonds for the money to do it, or the state grants the money for us to do it, or we find a foundation that wants to grant monies to support it. Or we find a private investor who’s willing to come in and do that. And so we’re obviously chipping away on all those fronts.“

Brown said his favorite success story is of Carlos Ventura, a Dominican immigrant and his wife, Brendaliz Ventura, who had a baby during the pandemic. 

“He lost his job as a barber because it was a service-level job during the pandemic. And here he was on the backside of the pandemic wanting to open his own barber shop … and now he has a barbershop with six chairs,” he said. 

Brown highlighted other businesses that received loans to get started, including Street Stuff, which sells Indian and Triumph motorcycles; Thayer’s Marina; Johnny’s Clam Shack; Manny’s Pizza; and the 27-room boutique Calista Hotel. 

“Overall it’s a 3-to-1 return for every federal, public dollar put in,” Brown said. 

The city is also tapping into the state’s Community Investment Fund, an $875 million bond to be awarded over five years in two rounds per year for capital infrastructure projects or small business in the state’s most underserved communities. 

Brown said the downtown marina and waterfront are the next key areas for redevelopment. The corporation submitted a $11.7 million CIF grant application to rehabilitate and improve Howard T. Brown Memorial Park, the Heritage Trail running from downtown to Uncas Leap, and a waterside restaurant, ice cream stand and dock area. 

“This represents a huge strategic opportunity for on-water, on-shore, and food and beverage improvements that will improve the quality of life in the downtown for residents within a 10-minute walk, and an economic development opportunity for businesses downtown,” Brown said.

Balancing personal and professional

When it comes to balancing his personal and professional life, Brown pointed to the Uncas Leap Heritage Park project as a place where he could serve both the city and his tribe. 

The park, a sacred Mohegan site, is being developed to emphasize the tribe’s heritage, as well as the city’s manufacturing history.

“[This] is an example of a place where we’re able to work together, or I can even work on behalf of my own tribe to ensure that something that is historically significant and important to the Mohegan Tribal Nation can be sustained and protected in the city of Norwich,” Brown said. 

On a personal level, he said it was a “great feeling” to serve the tribe by developing the park. 

“That’s one place where we have certainly merged interests and where I can be of use to my tribe while still being focused on Norwich and the duties that I’m hired to do,” he said.

Asked if grants for projects for the city and tribe overlap, Brown noted the need to leverage the state’s resources regionally, as well as between municipalities and the tribes. 

“We live in a state where there are 169 municipalities, and we say that as if we’re proud of the fact that there are 169 different fiefdoms. But there’s scarce resources, and so where possible we should be working together, neighboring towns and tribes,” he said. “… I don’t know that we’ve leveraged the weight of the importance of a relationship between the Sovereign Nations.”

Brown said the city and tribes should be looking at how to achieve things together. 

“We can’t all be looking at our stovepipes,” he said. “… There are ways that I think we can be working together better to ensure that we are supporting each other in the roles that each of us have in that ecosystem.”

Brown said he had a letter of support from the Mohegan Tribe for the city’s waterfront development, acknowledging that improving that area will enhance the possibility of boaters docking in Norwich and visiting the casino. 

“And we probably haven’t tapped the resource that would be the cooperation that could exist between us and the tribe in pursuit of grant funding or otherwise, that might make for better living conditions for those folks in our downtown,” he said. 

Looking toward the future

Circling back to the business park, Brown said the city is looking at the needs of the offshore wind industry, the defense industry and agribusiness. 

“Ultimately, one day, not tomorrow, not even probably next year. But within the next five years, as this industry gets going … and turbines start to get built, pieces and parts of the supply chain are going to get domesticated,” he said, noting that current manufacturing of wind components is centered in Europe. “But ultimately, particularly if you consider the fact that this is a matter of national energy security, we should be able to have a goal to secure a domestic supply chain so that we’re not reliant on others.”

Electric Boat’s task to produce two Columbia-class submarines a year means the supply chains have a larger demand, he explained.

“That means that they might want to locate more proximate to EB, or they might need to expand their capacity,” he said. 

Brown said agribusiness — growing fruits and vegetables indoors and locally — can reduce shocks to the food supply chain during crises like a pandemic as well. 

“Plus, the grow houses are utility intensive, which will bring in revenue through the city’s municipal utility authority and reduce rates for residential customers because of that high use on the other end,” he said. 

Brown said communication with the public is a key, but difficult, part of his job. 

“Sometimes people just don’t want to hear what you’re telling them or are cynical about what you’re telling them, and that’s hard to overcome. And all I can ever do … is be as open and transparent as possible,” he said. 

In light of his family’s history in the area, he said he felt personally and professionally responsible to bring the community a smart, well-engineered design for the business park, as well as other projects,  that will uplift Norwich economically and create a prosperous future. 

“Norwich is a distressed community, and my goal is to make it not a distressed community,” he said. “That’s what I’m trying to achieve here. Why? Because my grandfather raised my father in this town, he delivered this newspaper. Why? Because Uncas is my 13th great-grandfather, who once roamed this land and owned this land. This matters to me. And if it matters to me, do you really think I’m gonna wander into a room and try to impose something on you that I don’t think is for your benefit? The answer is no.”