It is a sad day when struggling communities have to look to state government for sustenance and rejuvenation. But such is the case with Torrington, a once proud mill town in the upper Naugatuck Valley.
It seems that in the state of Connecticut, a new government building paid for with borrowed money is what passes for economic revival. To wit, the announcement last week that the state is moving the cramped district courthouse from the bucolic Litchfield green to gritty Torrington, where the Judicial Branch will enjoy an $81 million, spanking-new regional headquarters.
Granted, no one wants to look a gift-horse in the mouth. And Torrington does need a boost. The closing of mills and manufacturing plants over the last few decades has devastated the city, as it has several other places up and down the Route 8 corridor from Winsted to Waterbury to Derby.
The idea of moving the courthouse has been floating around for 40 years. The plan was first proposed by the late Judge John Speziale, a Torrington resident and a personal hero of mine for his role in ultimately exonerating Peter Reilly, the young Falls Village man who was falsely accused of murdering his mother after he was coerced into confessing during a State Police brainwashing in 1973.
The move was approved by the General Assembly 11 years ago, but its execution had become stalled. Hats off to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, though. He found a way to succeed where others, including former Republican governors John Rowland and M. Jodi Rell, failed. But to be fair, the unpopular Malloy has the benefit of a Democratic legislature that was eager to dole out some good news to the politically moderate Litchfield County as a Democratic governor gears up for what is sure to be a bruising re-election campaign.
The question on everyone’s mind is what kind a of a boost a new courthouse will give the city of Torrington, which has been looking for some good news. For starters, even though the Field Street property will officially come off the tax rolls, the loss of revenue will be blunted by an estimated $250,000 in state payments in lieu of taxes. Those payments should accelerate after 14 years, when a deal to split the PILOTs with Litchfield is finally phased out.
The new courthouse will be near downtown on a parking lot formerly used by employees of the Torrington Company, whose sprawling factory remains at 59 Field Street and is partially rented by the Register Citizen newspaper.
In a recent editorial, the paper was optimistic that the new courthouse will have an economic impact far greater than the town of Litchfield currently enjoys, in part because it’ll combine services offered through several smaller courts in the area, including Bantam’s, which will be closed.
The paper is also hopeful that space in its own underused building will be rented by others who need to be in proximity to the court. I share that aspiration, but there are already several law firms within a stone’s throw of Field Street.
Some economic activity is already in the offing, as a representative from Dunkin Donuts visited the office of the city planner, inquiring about opening a franchise near the future courthouse.
As a frequent visitor to Torrington, I hope the neighborhood near the courthouse property sees some rehabilitation. The area is dotted with signs of urban decay. Abandoned cars, rusted shopping carts, and broken appliances are the order of the day. One commenter on a Register Citizen thread wrote that the new courthouse will be a “great addition to town. Now all the losers and deadbeats can walk to their hearings.”
I wouldn’t go that far, but it’s possible, as one resident told the Republican American, that even as suspects, criminals and assorted miscreants head to hearings, the presence of police, prosecutors, and bailiffs will nevertheless have the effect of making the neighborhood safer, even while the economic benefit of the new structure remains in doubt.
So there you have it. Connecticut has found the solution to its decaying cities. Build an $81 million, state-of-the-art courthouse, Dunkin Donuts will move in with low-wage jobs, and crime will go down wherever the stately symbol of justice can be seen.
In all seriousness, however, I would be so much happier to see a manufacturing company move into town and reclaim that factory or build a new one. But that train has left for China, Bangladesh, and parts unknown. Meanwhile, the largess of the Judicial Branch will have to do for the Northwest Corner’s only city.