OPINION: A change in the wind

By Lorraine Connelly

When Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr. announced his decision to not seek re-election after a 40-year tenure in office what immediately came to mind was a scene from the Disney classic “Mary Poppins.” Announcing Poppins’ arrival to the Banks household is a weathervane rapidly changing direction. The queue of nanny candidates lined up to be interviewed are blown away as Poppins descends from the London skies. It’s unlikely Wallingford’s next mayoral election will be as dramatic, but a change is in the wind for the next administration.

Wallingford is adjusting to the ever-changing economic landscape as it finds its niche in the 21st century marketplace. Efforts have been made by the Economic Development Commission to pitch Wallingford as “a gateway to New England and beyond,” as the town continues to rebound from the 2016 departure of pharmaceutical giant Bristol Myers-Squibb. I recently sat down with members of the EDC, Vice-Chair Mark Gingras and retired Economic Specialist and EDC commissioner Tim Ryan — the prognosticators of our economic outlook — to discuss what the future holds.

Last month, the Town released the 2022 grand list of all taxable property, which increased by 1.08% to $49,396,056, bringing in an additional $1.5 million in tax revenue. The grand list is comprised of three parts: real estate, motor vehicle, and commercial and personal property. Adds Ryan, “In essence, the grand list is our report card.”

So, are we making the grade in attracting new businesses? Ryan states, “Yes, our growth has primarily been the knitting together of mid-size businesses in light manufacturing, engineering, and high tech.” In 2019, Wallingford entertained a plan for an Amazon warehouse and distribution center that would have allowed a 1 million-square foot building at the former Bristol Myers site. Complaints about increased traffic and environmental impacts led to the project’s rejection by the Planning and Zoning Commission.

In 2021, the Town Council approved a host agreement with start-up company GotSpace to develop data centers near North Farms Road with a second site to be constructed near Northrop and Barnes roads. Again, residents spoke against a zoning regulation amendment that would permit data centers, citing environmental and noise disturbance concerns to adjacent residential properties. Commissioners agree that these were teaching moments for the businesses involved, the ideas behind the projects weren’t necessarily wrong but the developers needed to better educate the public.

The EDC sets a high bar when vetting potential developers. Says Ryan, “We ask ourselves is this the highest and best use of property?” While Wallingford’s foray into data centers didn’t work out, says Gingras, “Data center developers around the country know we are here, and we continue to attract interest as a result.”

Last April, the state approved plans by Yale New Haven Health and Hartford HealthCare to build and operate the Connecticut Proton Therapy Center on Northrop Road, next to the Courtyard by Marriott hotel. This 25,000-square foot center will use highly targeted radiological proton therapy instead of conventional radiation to treat various cancers. The partnership also includes Proton International, which will provide the equipment, construction, and operational functions for the center.

The collaboration between YNHH and HHC is a game changer not only for Wallingford, but for all Connecticut residents who will no longer need to travel 90 minutes to Boston or New York for breakthrough therapies. As Hartford HealthCare President and Chief Executive Officer Jeffrey A. Flaks said when announcing this collaboration last year: “This is a historic moment for cancer care in Connecticut. This newly established partnership will not only provide our patients and our communities access to proton therapy — one of the most clinically advanced radiation treatments in the world — but it will make Connecticut a ‘world-class’ destination hub when it comes to state-of-the-art cancer care.”

The $72 million project is expected to bring in significant tax revenue and is a feather in the cap for Ryan who shepherded the project during the pandemic. “The fact that we are working with two titans in the healthcare industry is especially rewarding.” Gingras agrees that this is a watershed moment. “We’re hoping the 12-acre site will be the impetus for other medical facilities to build in Wallingford in the future.”

With favorable economic winds on the horizon, the next administration will need to invest heavily in Wallingford’s infrastructure and economic business model so that we look like a town on the cusp of a watershed moment. We have some catching up to do in this area. Becoming state-of-the art will undoubtedly cost the town and its taxpayers something, rainy day funds notwithstanding. With continued sound, forward-looking economic stewardship, Wallingford may yet become the “gateway to New England and beyond.”

Lorraine Connelly is a writer and longtime Wallingford resident.


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