BRISTOL -- An often expressed goal of city officials is to include all residents in the first stages of planning of the downtown revitalization project, so that all voices are heard -- or in some cases, all signs are understood.
On Tuesday night the latter was in evidence at a forum and discussion meeting specifically for the city’s deaf community.
Mayor Gerard Couture and Gerard F. Downey, vice president of business development for the Maguire Group, were on hand to help present, aided by interpreters, plans for the downtown project to the 15 people who attended the special session at City Hall
Suggestions were made for areas that the deaf community could share with others. Senior citizens have voiced similar concerns and a senior room or club has been considered in the plans.
"We’ll add to the plan as we hear from you," Couture said, "so that we can build what is needed for all the citizens of Bristol."
The theater was of interest to many at the meeting, as that component allows theater for the deaf, which could draw people from other towns. The idea is an active part of many communities, for both the hearing and the deaf, said Donna Achilli, administrative assistant to the mayor.
"We get new and better ideas from the public as we go on," Downey said. "From day one we have worked with city residents and officials to make sure downtown will be beneficial for all taxpayers, their children and their children’s children."
As the planning stages represent only the first 20 percent of the project, many changes are yet possible. The meetings are not only to provide information, but also for information gathering.
"The general public has great ideas to make this project better," Couture said. "Any suggestions from the residents of Bristol would be greatly appreciated."
The project has been in the works for two years, with architects and planners only working for the past year. For a project of this scale, the planning stages are the most important.
"It’s a long, slow process," Downey said.
Once the city asks the state for money -- in this case close to $45 million -- the city must follow state law, such as the Connecticut Environmental Policy Act. That act required extensive testing of the site for ground contamination.
"The reports are being done, and there were no major problems," Downey said. "The site was really clean."
However, Couture said some minor contamination was found, so there will be some cleanup costs.
The site has been valued by appraisers to be worth more without the current mall than with the building.
"The building is of no value to the site," Downey said. "If a developer bought the site, he’d want the building knocked down."
The city is the current owner of the site, which was purchased for $5 million, and the value has since been appraised at nearly $6.2 million. The state has already contributed $5 million to the city. The project has been allotted $3 million to cover testing and plan development, and the other $2 million has gone into North Main Street renovation.
The state has yet to give final approval for the project or to promise funding. That raised many questions from those present.
Marianna K. Zagrodnik, a Bristol resident for more than 40 years, asked, "How can you plan something like this? What proof do you have that the state will give the money?"
Couture responded by explaining that redevelopment has only happened once in the past half-century.
"Forty years ago was the last time this city was renovated. ..They thought they were doing it right, but they made some mistakes. We’re making sure we don’t make the same mistakes. I have been told by Governor Rell personally that if our plan is in place, the money will follow."
Regarding the project’s high cost, Couture said nearly $40 million was recently spent to renovate Bristol’s high schools with no monetary return.
"Nothing new was added," Couture said. "They were simply given a face-lift. This project will offer return with the retail portion."
The three main elements of the proposal are a theater group, a parks and recreation aspect and a Boys and Girls Club. These elements account for only half the 17-acre site.
"The other half is available for developers to build retail, housing, office buildings, etc.," Downey said.
An all-retail setup won’t work, as evidenced by the current state of the mall, he added. However, the retail aspect of the plan is expected to bring enough revenue to make up for the nonprofit aspects of the plan.
"The retail tax dollars will cover the nonprofit areas in day to day operating expenses," Couture said.
The plan has been downsized from the original vision of two years ago to stay within the proposed budget of $65 million. An originally proposed swimming pool has been dropped, the recreation center has been downsized and the proposed parking garage has been put on hold until there is more need for additional parking.
"We’ve done a fantastic job to make sure to follow state guidelines and there are no major red flags," Couture added.
Yet, as with most efforts of this magnitude, there’s always Plan B. "A private contractor could buy the property and develop it, but we’d still have control over what’s done on the site," Couture said.
The site is not meant to draw consumers away from other areas, according to Downey.
"This plan doesn’t compete with Route 6 -- it’s all filled up," Downey said. "When they [businesses] can’t build there, they’ll look to wherever there’s land."
People at the meeting expressed concern about the fate of the current supermarket on North Main Street. The store will eventually be removed, but officials said they are aware of the importance of downtown shopping.
"We won’t destroy what’s there that’s being used by the citizens. We don’t want to diminish resources, but to increase them to make things easier and better," Couture said.
"The core of downtown has only seen neglect," Couture added. "It’s time for a face-lift."