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December 14, 2020

Tolland eyes expanded development options in its tech corridor

Photo | Contributed Kevin Bouley leads Tolland tech company Nerac.

About a decade ago Kevin Bouley laid out an ambitious plan to establish a bustling technology corridor in the bucolic town of Tolland that would feed off the synergies of UConn’s research and intellectual capital in nearby Storrs.

It was an aspirational vision for a town that has fought to keep its rural character and hasn’t always been receptive to new or different types of developments.

Nearly 10 years later, due to a confluence of factors, Tolland hasn’t transformed into a tech hub, but it has become a launching pad for numerous successful startups.

And that’s mostly thanks to Bouley, the CEO of Tolland research and development advisory firm Nerac, who also operates incubator space and a startup mentor/accelerator program called XcellR8 at his firm’s One Technology Drive headquarters.

Image | Contributed
Nerac’s headquarters at One Technology Drive sits within Tolland’s Technology Campus Zone.

Firms that got their start in Tolland with Bouley’s help include: Control Station, a Manchester-based data analytics and optimization services provider for the manufacturing industry; OpenSky, an IT consulting firm once named one of Connecticut’s fastest-growing tech companies — it was acquired in 2014 by Germany’s TUV Rheinland and gradually relocated to Houston, Texas; and Hartford-based EnviroPower, which is making environmentally-friendly boiler technology and recently raised $1.5 million in venture funding.

All three companies outgrew their incubator space and found homes outside of Tolland. It’s a fact not lost on Bouley, who has toned down his ambitious vision a bit.

“The nature of fostering economic expansion on the combined forces of creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship is still very core to what I support and continue to hope to accomplish,” he said. “But my vision has been tempered somewhat by the nature of market realities and the realization it would take probably more than twice as long and require twice as much investment in order for me to make more rapid progress.”

Tolland isn’t likely to become a mini Silicon Valley or Research Triangle, but it doesn’t mean the town isn’t thinking about new development.

In fact, the town’s planning and zoning commission, with the help of a top Connecticut-based real estate advisory firm, is working to loosen zoning restrictions within its Technology Campus Zone — where Nerac’s headquarters sits — to allow for broader development. It’s a move Bouley said he supports.

The area — which encompasses a portion of Merrow Road on Route 195 — has focused on attracting technology, bioscience and research-focused companies, but the town is considering adopting an overlay zone that would allow for more general development, including mixed-use residential and retail.

“My feeling is [the proposed changes] have had a very positive reception,” said Brian Miller, Tolland’s interim director of planning and development. “The goal is flexibility so that the town will be prepared to act on unanticipated businesses and those based upon or in response to the emerging technologies and societal changes.”

UConn connection

Tolland is going through what many Connecticut communities grapple with — a need to grow its grand list to prevent future tax increases on residents, while also wanting to preserve its rural-suburbia character.

About 81%, or $46 million, of Tolland’s total budget is funded by property taxes, said Town Manager Michael Rosen. Residential properties make up 78% of the grand list, while commercial and industrial properties make up just 8%. Only about 3% of the town is zoned for commercial development, Rosen said.

About 10 to 15 years ago the town realized it needed to encourage more development off its Route 195 corridor, which is the main connector off I-84 to UConn’s flagship Storrs campus.

Tolland’s proximity to UConn has been seen as a potential advantage in luring technology companies, especially as the university has ramped up investment in innovation and entrepreneurship over the last few decades, most recently debuting in 2018 its $159-million, 114,000-square-foot Innovation Partnership Building.

That hasn’t really come to fruition, aside from the work Bouley has done at his Nerac headquarters, which in addition to being home to his 25-employee company also hosts about a half-dozen startups. He’s currently recruiting more early-stage companies to join his incubator, but says the pandemic has made that a bit more challenging.

Feet on the street

Don Poland, managing director of planning and strategy at East Hartford-based Goman+York Property Advisors LLC, was hired by the town to consult on the pending zoning changes, which are still in the drafting stage and need approval from the planning and zoning commission.

Poland said Tolland and the Technology Campus Zone would benefit from mixed-used and higher-density multifamily development that could put more feet on the street and make the area more attractive to businesses.

Tolland’s more remote location outside Hartford’s urban core does put it at a competitive disadvantage in attracting new investment, but there will be opportunities coming out of the pandemic, he said.

However, don’t expect new projects to sprout overnight.

“The town can probably see some development in the near term, but we are most likely talking about a five- to 10-year horizon for any type of critical mass,” Poland said.

Rosen, the town manager, said some residential developers have been kicking the tires on potential projects in town and a condo development is currently in the works.

He said he’d like to see a neighborhood mixed-use development that could bring in some retail and restaurants. He noted the town’s first brewery is currently going through the approval process and a coffee chain is looking to move to town.

And any development, he said, must mesh with the town’s rural charm and character.

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