TORRINGTON >> Excavators and bulldozers were in full swing Wednesday at the Nidec site on Franklin Drive as city officials showed the state’s two U.S. senators around on the property that sits just across the river from Fuessenich Park.
Mayor Elinor Carbone is working with the company to help clean up and revive the brownfields site along the river as part of her river recapture project, which may eventually connect the city’s riverfront to others in the state all the way down to Derby. U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, both Democrats, came to see how they can help her achieve that goal.
“That greenway is a reality,” Murphy said Wednesday. “This is not a pipe dream any longer.”
Murphy also toured sites in Bridgeport and Waterbury earlier in the day and said environmental cleanup can help people see the natural beauty of the state.
“The river used to be on fire,” he said. “Now it has some of the best fish stock in New England.”
Nidec, which closed the Franklin Street building in 1990 when it moved much of its work to Japan, started demolishing the old buildings on the site a few months ago because they were unsafe and would be too expensive to redevelop.
The city, state and federal government are working together to help turn the former manufacturing site around, said Economic Development Director Erin Wilson. Last September, the city was awarded a $100,000 grant for environmental assessment of the site. Officials are hopeful that this could begin in fall, after requests for proposals for the environmental work are sent out and reviewed.
“The potential is all here,” Carbone said. “We’re very driven to get this accomplished.”
In fact, the turnaround on this brownfield project has been so fast Wilson and Carbone have been asked to speak about it at a conference in Chicago in the next few weeks.
City officials have been in talks with some manufacturers but also hotels and other businesses interested in the site. The city is also open to possibly buying the property from Nidec in the future.
The goal, they said, is to see a mixed-use development, possibly with housing — and maybe even a rooftop restaurant — at the 6.2-acre property. Housing, however, will require even more rigorous environmental cleanup that will cost more money, the senators cautioned.
“Manufacturing companies have called, but I don’t see manufacturing being here,” Carbone said. “The days of building manufacturing on rivers are over. ... We are looking for a different kind of development.”
One of the issues on the site is an oil spill from 2012 that has not been entirely cleaned up because the source of contamination has not yet been determined, officials said. A sheeting wall is protecting the oil from leaking into the river, but the site will require a complete cleanup once the source is found.
The senators offered to do what they can to help provide extra funding for this project. They are working on getting funding caps removed in order to put more money into remediation of old industrial sites across the state, they said.
“It’s not spending. It’s not funding. It’s investing,” Blumenthal said. “It’s not just putting money into a hole — it’s investing in a project with a huge payback.”
In addition to jobs, the cultural and aesthetic value is tremendous after a cleanup, the senator said.
Murphy said another goal is to work with the Environmental Protection Agency and the state to go over standards for what is required at these old sites.
“It doesn’t do us any good to have the highest cleanup standards in the nation if no property ends up getting cleaned up,” Murphy said.
Murphy also said these projects need to be thought about in a regional way, with the planned improvements of the “mixmaster” in Waterbury and a rail line that goes to Torrington as part of the larger picture that will help revitalize the area.
“All roads lead to Torrington,” Murphy said, jokingly.
But, Carbone responded, the goal is to give people a reason to stay in the city once they get there, not just drive through. And an improved riverfront may be one of those reasons.
“We have opportunities,” Wilson said. “We are really excited to see what will happen.”