MERIDEN — Significant spending on downtown, eliminating blight and improving the city’s image were reoccurring topics at a recent joint meeting of the City Council’s Economic Development, Housing and Zoning Committee and the Planning Commission.
Members of the two panels met virtually to whittle down a list of 16 priorities developed as part of the city’s Plan of Conservation and Development. Economic Development Director Joseph Feest, Planning Director Paul Dickson, Mayor Kevin Scarpati and City Manager Timothy Coon also attended the joint session.
“From where I sit, our downtown defines our community,” said City Councilor Michael Rohde. “Whether we like it or not, when people think of Meriden, they think nothing is happening. We have a brand new building at 24 Colony Street and we can’t fill the retail space. We got a building falling into the street that we put a fence around three years ago. I’m not hearing anything different relative to changing the trajectory. We do a drip and drab here and there and hope for the best. We need to rethink this priority downtown and I think we need to go big.”
Planning Commission member Ross Gulino, a downtown landlord, suggested creating a fund with anticipated federal stimulus dollars to help building owners.
“I am most shocked that people think there are building owners who choose not to do anything with their buildings,” Gulino said. “It all comes down to money. Get us $5 million in start-up funds and matching funds to lower those obstacles.”
Gulino said a matching fund would help with the restaurants and breweries needed to create an entertainment district downtown. He pointed to the formidable costs of converting an old building into a brewery. If the city can attract five or 10 businesses through a matching fund, it will see changes, he said.
“It pays for itself over and over,” Gulino said. “That money will permeate on the street with other shops. Empty spaces will fill up. We can’t keep spending more money to figure out how to give away money. We all know the money is coming out. Get us the money and we’ll see what we can do.”
Rohde estimated the city will receive about $25 million in federal funds to jumpstart its economy and he believes investing in downtown is the priority. He also suggested that property owners who don’t fill their buildings pay more in taxes, as is done in other cities.
The city is foreclosing on the properties at 9-11 and 13-17 Colony St. that Rohde referred to as “falling into the street.” The city imposed blight liens on the two buildings and a foreclosure auction is set for May 22.
City Councilor David Lowell, chairman of the Economic Development, Housing and Zoning Committee, warned that a $5 million investment with city funds would equal a two mill tax rate hike that would not go over well with residents. But Gulino and Rhode repeated the city should use federal stimulus funds, not money from the city’s coffers. Lowell later acknowledged federal funding could be available.
Planning Commission member Kevin Curry disagreed that the city should be spending to help downtown building owners, particularly at 24 Colony St. where commercial space has been vacant since the building opened four years ago. Instead, he believes the city should focus on revising zoning regulations to attract more development and streamline the approval process.
Dickson wants to invest in a program to assist owners of blighted properties make improvements instead of levying fines on a case by case basis. He said the city can concentrate on all its commercial corridors, including downtown.
Members of the two panels also discussed property on South Mountain Road in the north end of the city near where a power plant was once proposed and the need to advertise its availability to developers.
Blight was also a concern for Scarpati.
“I tend to agree with all of it,” Scarpati said. “We need to focus on the overall appearance of our city. Quite frankly, at times it’s embarrassing. How do we control the blight throughout the city and lift up our image? You are bound to drive by properties that are blighted, vacated, not just in the inner district, on the outskirts and in our neighborhoods. It doesn’t do any good to ignore those problems.”
Feest, the economic development director, pointed to new businesses in other parts of the city that have boosted the city’s tax revenues. Some funds could be used to aid downtown.
The city is currently working on a marketing plan to get the word out about amenities like parks as well as development opportunities. But Feest reminded officials not to be the city’s “own worse enemy.”
“There are more businesses in the city,” Feest said. “We could take some money offset by the grand list and turn around the downtown. It looks so much better. We have a lot more beautiful things in the city. The marketing can capitalize on the positives. A lot of things are happening and will happen.”
New Planning Commission member Victoria Church, who recently moved back to Meriden, said the city’s priority should be downtown as well as marketing the city’s varied housing stock and other amenities.
Planning Commission Chairman Steven Iovanna said he would like to see more incubator space for fledgling businesses to open at discounted rents.
The organization that helped Norwich improve its downtown was hired by the city and the Meriden Economic Development Corp. to conduct a shared work space study in downtown Meriden. Devin Schleidt is conducting a survey of local business owners to determine if there is a need. A forum on the topic will be held April 28 and April 30 at the Meriden Public Library. In addition to the city and MEDCO, the event is also sponsored by the Midstate Chamber of Commerce and CTNext.
The space would allow different companies to rent and share office space, office equipment, utilities, and support staff, including a receptionist. The Wednesday event runs from 5 to 6 p.m., and the Friday event runs from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. at library.
To RSVP, use the following link: