Welcome to Main Street Waterbury. Well here we are in the autumn of the Year. So far, it has been a great year for Downtown Waterbury with more good things on the way. The Brass City Brew Fest was once again a smash hit this year. Attendance more than doubled from last year. People visited Library Park in Downtown Waterbury from as far away as North Carolina, Brattleboro, Vermont and everywhere in-between, to follow their favorite micro-brew. I dare say this tradition may last for years to come.
I would like to commend Sgt. Dan Lauer of the Waterbury Police Dept. for taking my September column about cigarette butts very seriously. Beginning this month, after a month’s grace period and warning cycle, Waterbury Police will begin issuing litter tickets to those caught tossing their butts on the ground and into the street. It is a $219 infraction. So beware smokers, please dispose of your cigarette butts in ashtrays, smoking posts and proper receptacles. I would also like to commend Robin Adams for her bringing this to light in her recent “Around the Neighborhood Columns” in the Republican-American. In addition, a special thanks goes to Mike Gilmore who, as I mentioned in last month’s column, prompted me to write about this growing problem.
Now on to what I believe to be a key topic for discussion. First let me say that I firmly believe that at times Waterbury needs to learn that success is good. It’s okay to succeed. Really!! In order to do so however, sometimes-challenging decisions have to be made. Let’s take the topic of incentives for instance. I believe that in order for us to spur development particularly in our Downtown, we need to have in our tool box some measure of an incentive program. As of this writing, we have very little to put on the table to attract business and developers. Despite the Waterbury Development Corporation’s best efforts to attract business with low interest financing strategies and some small grant amounts for start-ups etc. their hands are tied with no incentives beyond that to offer.
Think about how many more opportunities they can create by knowing with confidence that they could attract and inform prospective investors in our downtown about tax abatement programs and perhaps permitting fee deferrals etc. The fact is, we as a City just are not putting enough on the table to attract the type of development and businesses that we are looking for, particularly in downtown. It’s bad enough that our mil rate is not the most attractive in the state, but we still have other challenges to overcome regarding the often-cumbersome building permitting and inspection process as well as turning around a negative image and all the political trappings that may exist in this regard. Yet, other communities and cities around Connecticut and the U.S. figure out a way to be successful.
Why not us?
I firmly believe we should have some type of tax abatement strategy in place. Typically, how it works in many communities, is that there is an abatement of taxes just on the percentage of an increased assessment once improvements have been made to a building. Therefore the building owner is still on the hook to pay his/her taxes on the original assessed value. Once the abatement term is up, the owner has to pay taxes on the current full-assessed value. The City would not miss what it wasn’t already receiving in taxes to begin with.
Several months ago, Michael O’Connor of WDC (who recently resigned his position) introduced the idea of instituting a tax-abatement program for Waterbury to spur development. WDC’s Avery Gaddis has researched the process and has prepared a presentation for the Waterbury Board of Alderman to consider. Let’s hope our elected officials can fully understand the positive impact that this program can have on our City. Let’s hope they get the point that this is a trend and remedy for beleaguered cities and downtowns across America. Let’s hope that they all demonstrate the leadership required to discuss this important matter prior to rather than after the election.
As I write this column, I just read the October 1, 2007 issue of Downtown Idea Exchange, a national publication. This month’s issue talks about Des Moines, Iowa. The article is entitled, “Property Tax Abatement Gives a Jump Start to Downtown Housing Market”. Des Moines city manager Rick Clark goes on to say, “As a city, we’ve been very aggressive in terms of using public incentives and assistance of a wide variety to support and jump-start development in our downtown. That strategy over the years has resulted in something of a renaissance, manifested in construction covering the spectrum of new offices, residential, and entertainment venues.”
Des Moines is just one example of the hundreds of cities across the U.S. that are offering these incentives. While other cities are eating our lunch by attracting development, fixing up their downtowns and attracting thousands, some of our locals call it “corporate welfare”. Call it what you want, incentives work. What are the benefits to our community with this erroneously perceived “giveaway”? Great question!
How about jobs, economic development, more investment, ease in attracting development downtown, restored buildings put back to viable use that will now be inherently more marketable than before, more businesses downtown, more people living downtown, and more people spending money downtown.
I’m not advocating incentives just for the sake of having them. They should accompany an overall strategy for our development and specifically a strategy that Main Street Waterbury has been talking about for the better part of 4 years now. We would like to see more mixed-use development in downtown taking advantage of our tremendous stock of historic commercial buildings. We are pushing for more affordable and market rate housing and less low income and section 8 housing for downtown. We would like to see the adaptive reuse of our historic buildings with upper floor residency and lower floor retail and commercial establishments. Let’s make Downtown Waterbury a residency by choice not by need! All of this should be done in an environment of updated zoning, good design and established design guidelines.
Are we afraid to succeed? Are we afraid that all this may actually happen? Is this what we want or do we just want more of the same old, same old. If we continue to be content with the status quo, then let’s just start packing up the tents and say, “last one out, shut off the lights and lock the door please!!”
If you are interested in helping with our efforts for downtown revitalization please call me at 203-757-0701 ext. 302 or email me at crosa@mainstreetwaterbury.com and remember keep thinking Main Street Waterbury, Culture, Education, Business!