June 29--BRISTOL -- The city is attracting a steady flow of buyers to its Southeast Business Park, maintaining a healthy reserve fund, and preparing to seek a top-class bond rating next spring, Mayor Ken Cockayne said in his annual state of the city speech Wednesday.
Cockayne, a fiscal conservative, complained that rollbacks of state aid contributed to the need for a 1.4-mill tax increase this year. But he said the Moody's and Standard & Poor's bond rating houses still credit Bristol for having a strong local economy, cautious budgetary practices, and a healthy $13.5 million rainy day fund.
At a breakfast meeting of the Central Connecticut Chambers of Commerce, Cockayne gave a relatively optimistic forecast for the city.
He emphasized that Bristol Hospital is making rapid progress toward designing a 150,000-square-foot medical office and lab building for part of the vacant 15-acre downtown property. When built, it will draw hundreds of medical workers and patients downtown every day, and will attract more developers for other parts of the property, he said.
"The end goal is a dynamic pedestrian-friendly downtown we can all be proud of," Cockayne said.
The long-stalled downtown revitalization is by far the city's biggest economic development challenge: The city bought the failing Bristol Centre Mall more than 10 years ago with hopes of replacing it with civic buildings, restaurants, stores and new apartments or condos, but the property has remained a rubble-strewn eyesore.
The city's marketing team this week renamed the property Centre Square, replacing the Depot Square name that was chosen years ago when municipal leaders wanted to give it a fresh image. After more years of frustrating delays, they concluded the Depot Square name had accumulated its own stale reputation.
Cockayne said Wednesday that the city recently hired consultants to draw up a master plan of how the property should be developed. Bristol intends to install utility lines, streets and sidewalks, and hopes to attract a mix of retail, commercial and residential developers.
At the same time, economic development leaders are working to bring more companies to the Southeast Business Park, and to retain existing employers. ESPN remains the city's corporate jewel: It pays more than $7 million a year in taxes, employs thousands, and donates to civic and non-profit groups, Cockayne said.
Another major goal in 2016 is to continue the fight against rundown properties, the mayor said. Bristol will keep getting after owners who let their buildings or yards deteriorate badly, and is ready to demolish more blighted houses and commercial structures if necessary, he said.
"The war on blight is essential to our effort to improve the quality of life," said Cockayne, who added, "There have been several demolitions and probably more to come."
Other Towns' Reports
Representatives from about a half-dozen neighboring communities also in the Central Connecticut Chambers of Commerce gave state-of-the-town talks of their own.
Bloomfield Economic Development Director Jose Giner said his community had a tremendous year for new construction, getting more than $2.5 million from building permits when it had budgeted only $800,000. About 10 homes near city hall are being demolished to make way for the first phase of a 415-unit apartment complex, he said.
Robert Lee, town manager of Plainville, said his town has kept spending in check, raising its budget an average of just 1.2 percent annually since the financial collapse of 2008. The schools kept increases even lower, yet managed to add all-day kindergarten, he said.
Farmington built its grand list by 1.2 percent last year, the most in a decade, Town Manager Kathleen Eagan said. It holds a AAA rating from Moody's, and is pumping money into a road repavement program as well as a $60 million upgrade of its sewage plant. The town also intends to start a large-scale renovation of Farmington High School in the near future, she said.
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