Construction cleared to begin on first phase of Ponemah Mill renovation

Ponemah Mills

The historic 1870 Ponemah Mill in Taftville stood in silence on Thursday, with broken and missing windows, peeling roof shingles and rotted wooden framework giving stark signs that the giant, sprawling landmark needs immediate attention.

In about two weeks, the mill that once employed thousands of French Canadian textile workers and roared with five floors of machinery will hum anew with construction that will convert the largest building in the Shetucket Riverfront complex, totaling 313,000 square feet, into 116 apartments.

On Wednesday, New Jersey-based developer Onekey LLC, which has been planning the project for the past dozen years, closed on a complex financing arrangement that provided the initial $18 million needed for the first phase of construction.

Seven documents measuring more than an inch thick were filed in the Norwich land records Wednesday, with a recording fee to the city clerk’s office of $1,000.

The state Bond Commission in January approved a $5 million loan from the state Department of Housing, made possible after the Norwich City Council agreed a year ago to phase in new property taxes over a 15-year period.

Onekey also obtained $10 million in federal and state historic tax credits to restore exterior features.

Building permits also have been approved, city Director of Inspections James Troeger said.

The city hired two independent engineering firms — paid for by Onekey — to review and approve the plans, calculated at a total value of $18.3 million.

On Tuesday, Onekey held an open house at the Norwich Courtyard hotel aimed at attracting minority- and women-owned businesses and local small businesses to the project, Onekey attorney Louis Kaufman said Thursday.

Onekey plans to start construction in April with replacement of the roof, restoration of 1,300 historic windows, the stair towers and less visible interior construction to frame the 116 apartments.

Before major financing was secured, Onekey invested about $10 million in the project over the years for structural work and environmental cleanup, Kaufman said.

“The interiors are pretty cleaned out right now,” Kaufman said. “The remediation of brownfields is done. There is other remediation that will be done during initial construction. We’re getting trades lined up. There should be a lot of activity in April. It’s all going to start at once. … We should be keeping a lot of local people working. The nice restaurants in town will be feeding a lot of the workers.”

Kaufman said construction is expected to take 18 months and will include an exhibit of the Ponemah Mill’s history.

Kaufman praised the numerous city agencies that assisted with the project over the years, and especially in the final push to obtain financing, including the Norwich Community Development Corp., the city Planning Department, building inspectors and especially Mayor Deberey Hinchey.

“This is the kind of project that is not easy to build and needs special attention,” Kaufman said. “The effort was monumental. But I guess we’re a very persistent group. The city has been very supportive all along. We’ve been through three city councils and two mayors. The council in all its permutations has been very supportive. I can’t say enough about Mayor Hinchey. She has lobbied. She has been to the state. The mayor has been very influential. She really got it done.”

Hinchey made multiple trips to Hartford to meet with officials from the state Department of Economic and Community Development and the governor’s office to lobby for support of the project.

“It feels so good to have gotten this thing going,” Hinchey said. “They’re going to make such a difference over there.”

Local attorney Glenn Carberry, who has represented Onekey from the start, also looks forward to a ground-breaking.

“It’s really exciting to see this go forward,” Carberry said Thursday, “because it’s a real gateway to the city and could give a real boost to Taftville development.”

By Claire Bessette, The Day staff write

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