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January 17, 2022

After years of waiting, new Enfield train platform could help revitalize town district

HBJ PHOTO | ZACHARY VASILE Enfield Mayor Bob Cressotti points out the location of the planned Hartford Line train platform in the Thompsonville section of town.

When the state Bond Commission last month approved $35 million for a new Hartford Line train platform in Enfield, it did more than signal a faster, more convenient rail commute to Hartford and Springfield for area residents.

“For the last 10 to 15 years, Enfield’s been on a list of places waiting for this funding,” said Enfield Mayor Bob Cressotti. “This is going to be a real boon for us. This is the key to reinvigorating the Thompsonville section of town.”

During a recent tour of the planned train stop, near the intersection of Main and South River streets, Cressotti pointed out sites associated with the once-thriving district’s industrial past, including the location of what years ago had been a casket factory that employed many town residents. The dilapidated building was gutted by a massive fire in March 2021 and had to be demolished.

Thompsonville, situated on the west side of town, along the Connecticut River, once enjoyed train service via Amtrak.

“That was during what I guess you’d call the heyday of Thompsonville,” Cressotti said. “And that was a long time ago.”

The administration of Gov. Ned Lamont has made a priority of steering funding to rail projects over the last year, taking advantage of massive federal pandemic-relief spending to shore up transportation infrastructure that could more efficiently link Connecticut’s cities with New York and Massachusetts and relieve overcrowding on the state’s aging highways, which have become a source of not only frustration but significant air pollution.

Enfield officials are now working to seize on that opening, rolling out an ambitious plan to widen streets surrounding the train platform and repurpose vacant or underutilized buildings in Thompsonville so that rail commuters will have more reasons to make Enfield a destination.

“It’s a real re-imagining of this area,” said Nelson Tereso, the town’s deputy director of economic and community development. “This is going to unlock the potential of the riverfront.”

Enfield is hardly alone in looking to boost transit-oriented development with a new link to the Hartford Line, which debuted in 2018 and currently has nine stops — eight in Connecticut and one in Massachusetts — along a 62-mile route that connects Springfield, Mass., to New Haven.

West Hartford, Windsor Locks, Newington and North Haven have all lobbied for similar state support, and new stations for both Enfield and Windsor Locks were originally included in an ambitious public transportation plan released by the Lamont administration in late 2019.

At the time, however, funding was tied to statewide tolling, which eroded public and legislative support for the initiative.

Plans for new stations in Windsor Locks and North Haven are now also in the works, officials said.

Years in the making

Thompsonville’s trajectory over the last 50 or so years is an unfortunately familiar story of deindustrialization and resulting economic hardship.

Once the original heart of town, the neighborhood struggled as major manufacturers, specifically carpet-makers, shut down or relocated to lower-cost states.

The closure of the Suffield and Thompsonville Bridge, whose stone supports remain anchored in the Connecticut River, redirected cross-river traffic away from Thompsonville, and as other areas of the community began to expand and develop, the riverfront district entered a period of stagnation and decline.

Longtime small businesses closed, only to be replaced by dollar stores, or not at all, and a broader lack of investment made it difficult for some homeowners and landlords to upgrade or even maintain their properties.

Efforts to inject new life into the region were stifled by the Thompsonville downtown’s lack of parking, which meant the only businesses likely to move in were those that served the population that could get there on foot. Social problems stemming from the economic downturn, including crime and drug use, as well as an aging housing stock and lack of space for new construction, warded away potential developers and families.

The original Thompsonville Amtrak platform — at the same site where the new platform will be built — closed in 1986.

Town officials had explored bringing back train service to the area in the early 2000s, but through successive state administrations, the funding never materialized. At the same time, the Thompsonville issue hung over town leaders, with residents asking why decades of planned revival programs had failed to uplift the increasingly blighted neighborhood.

The town of Enfield saw its population shrink by 6% over the last decade. It had 42,141 residents in 2020, according to U.S. Census data released last year.

According to Cressotti, former Town Manager Christopher Bromson and legislators representing Enfield — including state Reps. Tom Arnone, Carol Hall and John Kissel — began a renewed push for the Thompsonville train station once it became clear that Lamont was more interested in promoting rail transportation than some of his predecessors had been. A luncheon meeting with the governor and prominent figures from the business community was organized, and Enfield officials made their case.

“We focused on transit-oriented economic development,” Cressotti said. “And I think that aligns with how the governor sees things going.”

The town and state Department of Transportation collaborated on location and design plans, and Enfield town staff proposed a smaller, more workable layout that ultimately allowed the project to move forward, according to Tereso.

In April 2021, engineers from DOT unveiled their working concept, which includes a single-sided, heated platform that will accommodate northbound and southbound trains. Passengers will be able to buy tickets from on-site automated vending machines.

A utility building will also go up, and though it will not accommodate people, it will have an overhang, allowing passengers to stay out of the rain or snow.

Some metered parking will be built at the platform, and the town is now in discussions with the owner of Bigelow Commons, a nearby apartment building, to make more parking spaces available.

‘If you build it, they will come’

Cressotti said Enfield will seek to capitalize on the new rail service by working with developers to repurpose vacant or underused buildings in the immediate area as apartment complexes or mixed-use developments. Early plans will focus on North Main Street and the site of the Angelo Lamagna Activity Center, which was put up during the first wave of urban renewal projects in the area.

And plans to rehabilitate the area extend beyond housing.

The town has secured a $1.2 million grant to help revitalize a performing arts center at 100 High St., the home of the Opera House Players, a nonprofit community theater group.

Additionally, the town is eyeing a redevelopment of Higgins Park, also in Thompsonville, that would expand recreational options there, including a new basketball court and swimming pool.

The end goal, the mayor said, is to make the area attractive to Millennial workers, who in turn could draw businesses, such as restaurants, cafes and shops, to downtown Thompsonville.

“It will fuel small businesses coming into town,” he said. “People can walk to shops and connect to transport.”

And as that process continues, Cressotti hopes, the neighborhood will begin to rebuild its middle class to further stabilize the local economy and keep the revitalization going.

“They say, if you build it, they will come,” he said. “And that’s what we’re hoping will happen. Enfield has wanted this for a number of years and it’s finally becoming a reality.”

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