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December 11, 2023

New Waterbury Mayor Pernerewski says brownfield redevelopment, downtown revival key focus areas

HBJ PHOTO | MICHAEL PUFFER Waterbury Mayor Paul K. Pernerewski Jr. at City Hall.
Click below to see Paul K. Pernerewski Jr.'s bio
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Newly elected Waterbury Mayor Paul K. Pernerewski Jr.’s economic development agenda holds strongly to the priorities and tactics of his predecessor.

Pernerewski, 62, plans a continued focus on cleaning and repurposing long-abandoned and polluted factories that dot his post-industrial city. He also plans to maintain efforts to revive the long-struggling downtown.

As president of the city’s Board of Aldermen for the past 14 years, Pernerewski was a key figure in approving initiatives brought to the board by former Mayor Neil O’Leary.

“For 12 years I’ve supported almost all of what he’s done, and I think he’s had the right vision for the city, and I think it makes sense to continue on that path,” said Pernerewski, a Georgetown Law School graduate who was formerly an assistant attorney general for the state of Connecticut, followed by general counsel for the Connecticut Airport Authority.

O’Leary opted not to run for reelection this year and endorsed Pernerewski, a fellow Democrat and close ally.

Betting on brownfields

O’Leary stood out from his predecessors by embracing a policy of buying polluted and abandoned industrial sites, then securing millions of dollars from state and federal sources for cleanup and redevelopment.

Pernerewski said he wants to see through ongoing redevelopment of the 17.4-acre Anamet manufacturing campus in the city’s south end, and the 20-acre former Anaconda American Brass site along Freight Street in the city center, as well as other properties.

“I think we are going to continue moving on those as best as we can,” Pernerewski said. “At this point, the city has developed the expertise. It seems there’s no reason not to continue doing that.”

Apart from the massive costs associated with remediation of pollution and worn-out buildings, the Anamet and Anaconda factories occupied otherwise prime industrial real estate, serviced by public utilities and located near easy highway access.

Brownfields represent some of the last large tracts of developable land in the city.

The city is working to demolish the last remaining building on the Anaconda site, and has demolished all but two buildings at Anamet. Under O’Leary, the city bonded $2.7 million to repair the roof of a roughly 190,000-square-foot, high-bay industrial building at the Anamet site along South Main Street.

The hope is to find a new user.

“Those sites and those factories are what drove Waterbury to be an industrial powerhouse 100 years ago, really right through the 1970s,” Pernerewski said. “While they’re never going to be the industrial powerhouse the way they were while the brass mills were here, I do think they could be huge economic drivers.”

Doubling down on downtown

In recent years, the city spent tens of millions on downtown revitalization, with the bulk of money coming from state bonding and assistance.

Those funds were used to refurbish the downtown Green, rebuild downtown streetscapes, remove blight and subsidize large-scale, private redevelopments of prominent buildings.

For example, the state paid more than $7.7 million to defray costs of renovating the 114,000-square-foot former Howland Hughes Department Store into office space, which was leased to Post University for use by support staff.

Former Gov. Dannel P. Malloy set aside $10 million to similarly entice a developer to redevelop the 40,000-square-foot Odd Fellows office building, at 36 North Main St., which has long sat empty and deteriorating on the eastern edge of the downtown Green.

Despite all the work that’s been done, Waterbury’s city center still has challenges.

The hundreds of employees Post University brought to the refurbished Howland Hughes building in 2018 went remote with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Few have returned, Pernerewski acknowledged.

The head count at Webster Banks’ former headquarters on Bank Street has also shrunk dramatically, he noted. The former Waterbury-based bank in 2022 moved its main office to Stamford, following its merger with New York’s Sterling National Bank.

Still, there are positive signs.

A family of investors from Long Island headed by patriarch Ioannis Mariolis has purchased a string of downtown Waterbury buildings over the past two years, with most properties slated to be redeveloped into market-rate apartments, some with first-floor retail.

Local investors Michael Batista and Alexander Alicki also purchased several downtown buildings with plans for residential conversions.

Pernerewski said he plans to continue to encourage market-rate housing development downtown as an economic driver.

“You’ve built this foundation, and now you are seeing these people who are willing to invest and put in the kind of units that are going to make a difference,” Pernerewski said. “The market-rate housing is going to be a key element, it will bring people downtown who have money to spend. That’s what’s going to drive the restaurants and the retail shops.”

Beyond downtown

Pernerewski said he believes there must be greater focus on the city’s north end, particularly with programs to help refurbish deteriorating housing stock.

Pernerewski said he is open to tax incentives for development initiatives. He also plans to pursue improvements to the city’s public schools and public safety as a means of making Waterbury more attractive.

Pernerewski said he will also continue the rebranding and marketing effort O’Leary started. The city in 2020 hired the Worx Group, a Prospect-based marketing firm, to carry out a three-year, $654,720 marketing campaign, according to the Republican-American newspaper.

“I think that’s the kind of thing that gets people out there,” Pernerewski said. “There’s a story to be told, and I think they do a good job with telling that.”

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