Smart Growth for Vernon, CT
10-year rehab project about to launch - maybe

By Kym Soper
Journal Inquirer
August 24, 2007

VERNON - A 10-year project to rehab eight vacant buildings on Village and Orchard streets could finally see some progress as renovation work is set to go out to bid next month.

Members of the nonprofit corporation in charge of the project say efforts have been mired in bureaucracy for more than a decade, but expect that once a contract is awarded work should be completed in 270 days.

The news has many residents and town officials skeptical, however, because board members of the Vernon Nonprofit Housing and Development Corp. refuse to release more facts, including a detailed budget and schedule.

The group has been acquiring rundown, foreclosed, multi-family properties in the Rockville section of town with plans to refurbish and sell them as owner-occupied homes.

The state-funded project is meant to revitalize the downtown neighborhood just behind Rockville General Hospital, but efforts have been off and on over the last decade. Meanwhile neighbors and town officials complain that work so far has made the area even worse.

"It's been very frustrating to many members of that neighborhood," Bryan Flint, president of the Rockville Block Watch said. "Some people live next door or across from them. Others are embarrassed when people visit their homes and have to drive through that street."

The neighborhood looks more like a lawless ghost town than a revitalized area, residents say. Blue tarps partially cover the eight houses, which have stood as empty shells, vacant and without windows, siding, or protection from the elements, for some time.

Because work had stalled for so long, the Town Council asked the group's board for a formal presentation and update Monday at their last meeting.

"Hammers are going to fly, but we're very hesitant to give anybody a date," board member Diane Wheelock told the mayor and town council earlier this week.

The process has been frustrating, Wheelock added. The group has followed state and federal mandates surrounding lead and asbestos removal, she said. But prices soared for building materials as the years dragged on, and became nearly impossible to obtain during the tragedies of Hurricane Katrina and Sept. 11, she added.

Former Republican Councilwoman Christy Vale sits on the board. Vale said in the last few weeks crews have started work in some of the buildings doing rough interior framing and leveling of floors. The final phase will include siding and interior carpentry, she said, adding, "We're working as fast as we can."

"We're trying to rehab the entire street, and it's a large project," added Wheelock, a Republican candidate for the Town Council.

While the group did provide the council with a history of its organization and brief project status, including rough budget numbers, Nancy Osborn, board president, said the group refused to release more detailed information as it could contaminate the bidding process and tip their hand.

"We've been advised by our consultant and our architect to not share that information in a public forum as it would not be good business practice to make our budget known to potential bidders," Osborn said.

Democratic council member Polly Schaeffer told the group that in light of the drawn-out delays, she couldn't understand their refusal for a more comprehensive financial picture.

Public agencies funded with tax dollars, like the town council and school board, often make such disclosures when going out to bid, and the corporation should be no different, Schaeffer said.

"We've been very patient over the last few years, but there are a number of people who are concerned about this," Schaeffer told the board.

"We are a nonprofit, private organization, and as such, we don't have to provide that information," Vale answered. Most of the Republican council members agreed with the nonprofit, applauding the board's efforts to remain mum.

But Republican Brian Motola took exception, saying hubris saturated the group's presentation.

"I was expecting something more, like pictures or plans or something," Motola said afterwards. "If I had been working on a project for more than 10 years and had little to show for it, I would have had a little bit more humility."

Motola says he understands that money has been one of the problems all along, which is why the council asked for budget numbers. But the lack of a definitive schedule was more bothersome, he said.

"They can't actually say when this will be done - it could be another seven years for all we know," he said.

In the meantime, three Rockville businesses that could have benefited from 40 more people shopping downtown have closed and the town has lost $50,000 a year in tax revenue.

That's the salary for a cop or service for an ambulance, Motola said.

"While they may be frustrated, nobody cares - we just want to see it done, finished and over with," he said.

©Journal Inquirer 2007