In recent years, vacant mill or factory buildings in Norwich, Windsor Locks, Somers and Waterbury were destroyed by fires, sad losses not unknown to many other communities. The message couldn't be clearer: We need to use our remaining mill buildings or lose them.
There is finally some reason to be optimistic that at least some of these great assets will be preserved and repurposed.
Efforts to redevelop several former mills, including the Collins Co. ax factory in Canton and the Gilbert & Bennett wire mill in Redding, are underway. Also, the state Department of Economic and Community Development has just awarded an $868,000 grant to the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation to identify and help preserve the state's historic industrial places.
This effort has great potential.
The essence of smart or responsible growth — a policy Connecticut embraced in legislation several years ago — is to reuse the already-built environment, particularly structures in town centers and transit corridors. What a coincidence: That's where many of the mill buildings stand, particularly in many small towns that grew up around the mills.
Most mill structures are solidly built and afford the kind of cool space — lofts, exposed brick, etc., — that people we are trying to attract — young folks, artists, entrepreneurs — find attractive.
Despite the apparent advantages of mill restorations, Connecticut has been somewhat reluctant to do them, leaving this state well behind Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
Connecticut has restored some mill buildings, to be sure, but many have been sitting empty for decades. Why? The state's historic tax credit program didn't fully support mill restorations until 2001.
A few times over the years, town officials have expressed the hope that industry would return to the old mills. In virtually every case, that thinking has been wishful.
Wes Haynes, who will direct the Connecticut Trust's project, speculated that mills aren't a large part of the state's self-image, that we tend to think of ourselves in terms of village greens and white colonial churches — when the reality is that manufacturing overwhelmingly built Connecticut's wealth.
Plus, said Kip Bergstrom, deputy commissioner of the DECD, being behind neighboring states isn't all bad. It gives us that the chance to see what they did right and did wrong.
Housing is a great use for old mills, but everything doesn't have to be housing: Mills can mix uses. Certain projects can imbibe more money that they can return, a trap that can be avoided by using some mills essentially as is, with appropriate code updates.
The first step for the Connecticut Trust is an inventory to determine how many mills and factories are out there. The last such survey, in the 1980s, was "highly selective," said Helen Higgins, executive director of the trust; this latest one will be a broad update.
Ms. Higgins said the number of manufacturing sites in the state peaked at perhaps 5,000 in about 1925, and then fell dramatically in the deindustrialization that followed World War II.
The trust will also make small pre-development grants for restoration proposals that show the most promise.
The state, meanwhile, hopes to streamline the still-cumbersome historic tax credit program. Historic tax credits work. A 2007 Rhode Island study found that $460 million in tax credits was generating $2.46 billion in economic activity, according to The Providence Journal.
There is manufacturing in Connecticut, thankfully, but it is high-tech and specialized, generations removed from the old mills. Indeed, we are in a period of starting over, of developing new products, new methods, new businesses. What better place to do it than in the very buildings where the Industrial Revolution was born?