Smart Growth for Vernon, CT
Long-delayed fitness center project at former market nears completion

By Suzanne Carlson
Journal Inquirer
Published: Wednesday, December 28, 2011 1:08 PM EST

VERNON — The Shoppes at Eastview, the retail plaza at 425 Talcottville Road that’s been vacant since 1991, is set to become the new location for a Cardio Express fitness center thanks to an abatement offered the owner on future tax increases.

Economic Development Coordinator Shaun W. Gately said that he expects property owner Peter Rusconi to meet the Jan. 1 deadline to get a certificate of occupancy required by the Town Council when they approved the abatement in July.

“I’m anticipating that everything will be OK. I’ve been checking in periodically for the past three months or so, and it’s been steady progress,” Gately said, adding that building owners have an inspection scheduled Thursday.

Under the agreement with the council Rusconi and business associates will receive a 50 percent reduction off any increased assessment in the first four years, followed by a 25 percent reduction off any tax increase for the final three years of the seven-year deal, Gately said.

The agreement will only benefit the property owners if taxes increase over the next seven years, and Gately said the abatement is a way for developers to convince investors that a project can stand the test of time.

“This allows for banks to say, ‘Okay, the project isn’t going to go underwater because the town’s going to raise the taxes.’ It gives them some additional cash flow, if they know that there’s something there,” Gately said.

The abatements must follow restrictions codified in state law, but essentially, “the larger the investment, the greater advantage to the applicant,” he added.

A former A&P supermarket, the Heartland Food Warehouse opened in the 39,400-square foot plaza in Nov. 1978 and closed its doors in April 1991, leaving the property a vacant, blighted eyesore for years.

Cardio Express, which is currently located at 234 Talcottville Road, will serve as an anchor for other businesses the town is hoping to attract to the plaza, Gately said.

It’s not known precisely when the new location will open, but Gately said Rusconi expects to be ready a few weeks after the New Year.

For a decade, the property has suffered from numerous setbacks, with developers and state transportation officials blaming each other for the delays.

In 2008, for example, Rusconi, who purchased the property from a Massachusetts company in 2006, said he planned to move Cardio Express into the building by the end of the year, and Gately said that a number of factors held up progress for a frustratingly long time.

“There were a number of conditions that prevented him from finishing it. The economy, financing, I could go on,” Gately said.

Surrounding towns such as South Windsor have long used tax abatements to woo businesses, and Gately said Vernon began using the abatements allowed under state law this fall in an effort to level the playing field.

“Every community has its strengths and weaknesses, and all things being equal, Vernon is in a fantastic location: it’s right on the highway, it has great access to the Massachusetts Turnpike, I-84, 91, 291, so it has something other towns do not,” Gately said. “However, if another town has a stronger abatement than we have, maybe that’s an equalizer.”

While there are no local ordinances or regulations addressing the abatements, Gately said he established a set of guidelines available on the town assessor’s website in an effort to let businesses know what options were available to them in Vernon, though no company has benefited from them to date.

There have been many inquiries about whether Vernon has tax abatements, “yet no one has applied for them,” Gately said. “It’s not something that’s going to catapult us to the top, it’s something that will put us on an even plane.”

Every project that may qualify for tax abatement must receive approval from the Town Council, Gately said, but developers will know what to expect based on the guidelines he has presented.

“Uncertainty is not our friend, so we’d like things to be as clear as possible,” he said.

If for some reason Cardio Express does not meet the Jan. 1 deadline, the council will review the project and decide whether to grant an extension, he added.

For the future, Gately said it’s up to the council to determine whether tax abatements are appropriate on a case by case basis, but the incentives have practically become a necessity for towns looking to develop their economy.

“We all wish there were no abatements, there were no incentives,” Gately said. “Unfortunately, as soon as there’s one incentive and someone takes advantage of it, then everyone else has to keep up.”

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