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Plan for historic train station draws raves, questions from Wallingford Town Council

WALLINGFORD — A plan presented to the Town Council Tuesday night would transform the historic former train station into a market-type destination with a food court, a “tasting bar” and an area reserved for the arts.

And while the plan won raves from council members, it also prompted questions as to how the project got this far in the planning phase without their input, as well as concerns on where the town’s adult education program would land after it would be forced to vacate the building.

‘Shining beacon for future development’

Last September, the town submitted a grant for $3.5 million that would have required a $1.75 million town contribution.

“Ultimately, the town was not selected for the grant,” said Don Crouch, the town’s economic specialist. “Since that time, the town has had conversations with several developers. Nothing was too serious to bring to your attention.”

But now the town has been working with a developer on a concept for the former railroad station that would include a food court with a variety of options offered, he said.

“This opportunity has two phases for economic development impact. The first is rehabilitation of the building, which will preserve and maintain this town asset and provide an interior shell for future use,” he said. “The second is the redevelopment, which will revitalize the lower portion of the town center, increase private investment in the area and erase the distinction between uptown and downtown. Recent progress in the town center includes updated zoning regulations, incentives, new and expanded businesses and additional projects near the railroad.

“The historic railroad station will be a shining beacon for future development in our community and continue to serve as the gateway to Wallingford. We were looking for a prospective partner who wants to maintain Wallingford’s history while investing in Wallingford’s future.”

Developer John Sullivan said he represents a group of business owners and developers that have an interest in Wallingford.

“Many of us are currently doing things here or exploring projects in the immediate vicinity of the historic railroad station,” he told the council. “Our proposal is to consider the use of the train station for a concept that would include a food hall and also potentially a tasting bar on the second floor area, which would also reserve some space for the arts, whether that be live music, whether that be arts performances, things in association with the arts council here in town.”

The developer would take over leasing the property after the town renovated the interior to a “blank space” that could be finished off to the requirements of those businesses leasing the space, he said. The developer would hold a “master lease” with the town and would in turn sublease it to the tenants. He estimates there would be room for up to six or so vendors, Sullivan said, though they already have interest from around 15 potential vendors

“It would allow visitors to experience the beauty of the building, both on the inside and the outside,” Sullivan said. “We know it’s certainly a centerpiece for the town as it stands, but I think the interior of the building could equally be a focal point.”

The plans include having several unique food vendors and seating on the first-floor space, with a tasting bar and a reserved area for the arts on the second floor, which would include a small stage area, he said. The tasting bar would feature local distilleries, wineries and breweries, many of which are here in town, he said.

A successful concept

“There’s certainly many examples of this concept working in many communities similar to Wallingford,” Sullivan said. “It would clearly create a draw to the downtown area, which has recently been rezoned for higher density housing and other potential business uses, erasing the distinction between uptown and downtown areas.” He listed Eagle Square in Concord, N.H., and Parkville Market in Hartford as places where it has worked.

“I think this would be an attractive draw to do that,” he said. “It would support those other projects as well, providing a focal point of interest for people who want to develop other projects in the area, as well as leverage the existing investment the town has made in projects such as the paving of the former Brothers property on the other side of the tracks. It will create jobs as well as the opportunity for existing businesses to benefit from the increased draw in foot traffic.”

Since it was built, the historic train station has served as a gateway to the town, Sullivan said, and this would only complement that designation.

“This is an area of the town which has literally been synonymous with the entry point to the town of Wallingford since its conception in the 1800s when the station was built. It’s the first experience many people have had coming into our town,” Sullivan said. “I think that reusing the station as a destination venue would be attractive not only to residents of our own town but to people in the region. This would be a gateway for people to have an experience with Wallingford, open the doors to this section of town, create much-needed economic stimulus in that particular area of town center and bolster the projects that many of us are working on.”

What about the adult education program?

Council Chairman Vincent Cervoni said before anything is approved, it would have to be determined what would happen with the town’s adult education program, which uses space in the train station for its classes. It’s a topic that has been discussed for a while, and school officials have suggested they would be interested in moving it to the former Armory building after the police department moves into its new headquarters under renovations on Barnes Road.

It also was suggested that the adult education program could be moved to Mark Sheehan High School should the board move forward with plans to close its two high schools and build one larger school on the Lyman Hall High School campus. The board voted to move forward with that plan in January, but it prompted considerable outcry from residents and the board has not pursued it since then.

“People are going to want to know where the adult education department is going to go because that is something that is very important to a lot of people in town,” Cervoni said.

“If people are interested in this,” Mayor William Dickinson said, “we can begin talking with the Board of Education and school officials to determine what would be another site for adult education. It’s an idea right now. I don’t think it would be any sooner than next summer that there would be an actual end of the use for adult education, but it could be even later than that.”

Sullivan said they would work with the town on developing a timeline on when the project could begin.

“We would love to get it started sometime around this time next year, but realistically, we can be flexible based on the needs of the town,” he said. “If it’s going to take time to figure out what to do with the adult ed program, I think within reason this can be a flexible timeline.”

Lack of council involvement questioned

But not so fast, Councilor Vinnie Testa said, adding that he was surprised to see how far plans for the project have gotten without council involvement.

“I like a lot of what I’m hearing, but at the same time, I’m confused as to how we got here,” he said. When the council initially talked about applying for the state grant last year, the focus was on a historically correct renovation as step one, he said.

“I don’t recall authorizing an RFP (request for proposals) for a developer,” he said. “I like what I’m hearing but I’m not sure I’m comfortable, because we had nothing to say about it. What I was hoping to see was an opportunity to have a discussion with the Economic Development Commission for starters. I wasn’t comfortable with EDC running the whole ball anyway.

“This is a town building and I like what you’re talking about doing, but I totally expected the council to be involved in the discussions throughout. I thought there would be an opportunity to have a discussion about potential uses we might be seeking.”

Testa said he wasn’t in favor of a single-tenant use, and was interested in a “Quincy Market-type” project. He said once how the renovation would proceed was decided, the town could issue an RFP and get ideas from businesses. “I would just question, where did we get you? How did we bring this business to the table?”

“It’s kind of a surprise, albeit a pleasant one, but how we got here concerns me,” he said. “But I will not approve moving forward until we have a concrete answer to where adult ed is going. I want to have a say as opposed to signing off on what’s going on here.”

The council took no action on the proposal, and Cervoni said it will be included on a future council agenda.



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