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Story By John Murray

A logjam thwarting the development of a wooded property in the South End of Waterbury was broken wide open with the stunning announcement that Amazon is interested in building a massive distribution center that could bring 1000 new jobs to the region.

An Amazon warehouse in Waterbury could bing 1000 full-time jobs.

There are contracts to sign, details to work out and public hearings to organize, but the infectious enthusiasm from political and community leaders at a press conference January 25th gave the clear signal that this project is a go.

Governor Ned Lamont addressing the January 25th press conference in Waterbury.

Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary was quoted in the media calling it the best news in Waterbury in the past 20 years, and speaker after speaker was effusive in congratulating the collaboration of O’Leary and Naugatuck Mayor Pete Hess, who through a regional approach, were able to overcome obstacles that had thwarted development on the property for three decades.

There may have been earlier attempts to develop the property, but our collective memory only goes back to October 1993 when The Waterbury Observer was launched, and the property was big news right away.

In December 1993 Chief Quiet Hawk of the Golden Hill Paugausett tribe signed a letter of understanding to build a casino on 100-acres of wooded land in the South End of Waterbury. First, though, the tribe needed to gain federal recognition from the Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, and Waterbury Mayor Mike Bergin vowed to use his political influence in Connecticut, and in Washington D.C., to make that happen.

Within hours of Quiet Hawk signing a deal with Waterbury, his brother, Moonface Bear, stepped forward to proclaim himself the tribal chief, casting doubt on the agreement.

The tribe’s efforts were thwarted by several factors, including an uneven political process inside the Bureau of Indian Affairs (they are still battling for federal recognition in 2022), and the vision of blackjack tables, slot machines and truckloads of tax dollars for Waterbury vanished.

In the ensuing 25 years there have been efforts to develop the city-owned land, located across the street from the old Howard Johnson’s on South Main Street, but nothing worked. Proposals included building a dog track, a motor speedway and a shopping plaza, but the projects collapsed from access problems in and out of the odd-shaped property. The land was nestled atop a plateau with steep topography on its western edge that made road construction nearly impossible.

A suggestion to transform the property into a network of hiking trails connecting to a proposed greenway were brushed aside as a tree hugger’s fantasy. The sole focus was on economic development and adding value to the city’s grand list.

It wasn’t until O’Leary and Hess began collaborating on a regional approach to the property that a breakthrough occurred. The land in Waterbury sat up against the Naugatuck town line, and just over the border, an additional swath of land owned by Naugatuck was available for development. By combining the properties and creating a tax sharing agreement between the two towns, the project had a better shot at development. Access was still a problem, though.

Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary, left, and Naugatuck Mayor Pete Hess

O’Leary and Hess then approached Mike Devino about a parcel of land he owned that would add additional flexibility. With the purchase of the Devino property an access road could be built connecting to the Naugatuck Industrial Park, and the major roadblock to developing the 163-acre parcel would be removed. When Devino agreed to sell, the project began to take flight.

The two leaders and their respective municipal boards and development agencies hashed out the details, and upon agreement, 163 acres was marketed for development. Mayor Hess said that if you tried to stick a pin at the center spot between all the major towns in Connecticut, it would be at this site.

“It has location, location, location,” Hess said. “It’s right at the intersection of I-84 and Route 8.”

And on January 25th, Hess and O’Leary were joined by Governor Ned Lamont, Lt. Governor Susan Bysiewicz, Congresswoman Jahana Hayes, and a host of elected officials and community leaders to announce that developer Bluewater Property Group had been selected to develop the site.

While pulses weren’t raised by the name of Bluewater Property Group, it was the prospective client of that development company – Amazon – that had prominent dignitaries gathered together inside the Engine #1 Firehouse at Waterbury City Hall.

While reams of paperwork and procedure remains to be processed, when the dust settles, all indications are that the undeveloped wooded parcel will be transformed into a massive Amazon distribution warehouse in the South End of Waterbury. There are estimates the project will create 1000 full time jobs and hundreds of part time jobs and deliver millions of dollars in tax revenue to Waterbury and Naugatuck.

Amazon, attracted by Connecticut’s proximity to New York City and Boston, has a built a network of warehouses across the state. Since 2010 Amazon has invested more than $1 billion in Connecticut.

UConn marketing professor told the Journal Inquirer newspaper in September 2021 that Amazon’s investments in the state are, “about getting products to customers.”

And during the COVID pandemic Amazon has experienced remarkable growth in sales, up 200% in the 4th quarter of 2020 as more and more people shopped online from the safety of their home.

The network of Amazon facilities in Connecticut represents a growth in a new field, the warehousing logistics industry.

Governor Ned Lamont told the gathering in Waterbury that Connecticut is at the forefront of that new industry.

“Over the last couple of years, we’ve heard a lot about the supply chain and not being able to get the products to the people,” Lamont said. “And that’s what this is all about. Logistics starts with our transportation system.”

Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont

The Congressional infrastructure money coming to Connecticut is going to be invested in upgrading ports, airports, roads and rail lines. “The investments we’re making in transportation and logistics is going to be transformative for generations to come,” Lamont said.

Congresswoman Jahana Hayes touted O’Leary’s work at brownfield remediation, and now with this project on an undeveloped parcel of land in the South End.

U.S. Congresswoman Jahana Hayes

“Our mayor is reimagining what these properties can be,” Hayes said, “and then he goes out and sells that to developers across the country to bring new business to the city, and help the community grow.”

O’Leary credited a long list of partners in developing the project. “I am proud of the collaborative work done here by the state, the city, the borough, and the Naugatuck Valley Regional Development Corporation,” O’Leary said. “Much work is left to be done, but this could be an amazing win for our region and the entire state.” •

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