By Curt Spalding
I shouldn’t admit it, but I was cranky about heading to Connecticut for a public appearance at the start of a summer weekend. Isn’t this beyond the call of duty, I thought, as I sizzled in late afternoon traffic on a simmering August Friday.
Then I arrived in Meriden, and the event turned into one of the most inspiring occasions of my eight years at EPA New England.
At the new Meriden Green, hundreds of people from different backgrounds and races, all of them residents of Meriden, were gathered to celebrate a project that has been years in the making and has no doubt already transformed this city of 60,000 people.
Once known as the Silver City, Meriden had over the decades become a sad example of what happens to a former manufacturing town badly managed. The city was hollowed out and its commerce had moved to the outskirts.
My destination that afternoon was atop an architecturally stunning bridge overlooking 14 acres of green space with the Harbor Brook running below it, not at all the picture of a down and out town. Gov. Dan Malloy and several other state and federal dignitaries were there as well, awaiting their turn to speak. We stood over the bustling scene and saw the results of a $14 million brownfields project, which is part of a much larger $250 million urban development plan that has truly brought new hope to the community of Meriden.
Harbor Brook, which had been channeled into an underground culvert, was freely flowing under the bridge. Perhaps I had stars in my eyes, but it looked to me like a bubbly stream running through the Rockies.
Just as exciting to me as the architecture, the greenery and the gurgling stream was the palpable sense of hope I sensed in the enthusiastic crowd below. At that moment we all beheld the new and glorious vision for a city whose prosperous days we once feared had passed.
It took more than a decade and the cooperation of state, local and federal agencies working with the community to create this urban oasis. But I want to tell you that this is what vision, funding and a dedicated citizenry can do. The Meriden Green sits on the former site of the International Silver Co., land that for decades has been idle, an eyesore amid a hurting city. Today that abandoned, contaminated lot is the center of the city’s restoration. Besides the luscious green space, the entire redevelopment area will include 600 new residential units and more than 60,000 square feet of ground floor commercial space. And all of this neighbors a train station where Amtrak’s new route will stop on its way between New York City and Springfield, Mass.
I made a few remarks, about Meriden’s transformation, and the role of $615,000 in EPA brownfields funding. I praised Gov. Malloy for the enormous amount he has invested in brownfields, accomplishing wonders for this state. When I came to EPA eight years ago, Connecticut didn’t have a robust brownfields program, nor tools to invest in these abandoned, contaminated lots. Then the people of Meriden created the Blight and Brownfields Committee, on which EPA and numerous other involved organizations sat, and the state stepped up to the plate.
Meriden is not the only Connecticut city that has reaped the benefits of an active brownfields program and coordinated efforts led by the community. I recently stopped in Bridgeport at the site of the former Remington Arms Co., now called Lake Success Eco Business Park. This 426-acre brownfield parcel that once hosted a weapons and ordnance factory is being developed into a complex of offices, commercial space, and a hotel and conference facility in the state’s largest and poorest city. Although work remains to be done, most of the site has been cleaned and contamination from ordnance testing removed.
As it happens, I am quite familiar with the history of manufacturing in Connecticut. My grandfather was born in Watertown and worked as a metallurgist at the American Brass Co.’s beautiful facilities. When I began to tour Connecticut cities, I saw despair from the loss of manufacturing. Now I look at cities like Meriden, Bridgeport or Waterbury and I see a future. In these former mills towns I now see one example after another of how the re-use of a parcel can transform a wasteland into an economically vital area and a motivated, thriving community.
Curt Spalding is regional administrator of EPA’s New England office.
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