Public Meeting Wednesday On Revitalizing Old Wethersfield

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WETHERSFIELD – Transform the historic Comstock Ferre & Co. buildings into a “small scale Old Sturbridge Village,” move the Belden House to Church Street, and turn the long-vacant Masonic Hall into retail, entertainment or residential space.

Those are among the recommendations of the recently completed Old Wethersfield Action/ Revitalization Plan. The proposals will be the subject of a public information session at 7 p.m. Wednesday in town hall.

“There will be the opportunity for public input,” said Peter Gillespie, director of planning and economic development. “We want to make sure that these final recommendations are generally acceptable to the community so whoever takes on these projects for implementation has a general lay of the land.”

The study took eight or nine months and cost about $50,000, Gillespie said. A Connecticut Trust for Historical Preservation grant covered the expense, he said.

The three properties featured in the study are all underutilized and key to revitalizing historic Old Wethersfield, Gillespie said.

“Anyone interested in Old Wethersfield is interested in seeing these properties put back into productive use,” he said.

The study’s most ambitious proposal is to turn the Comstock Ferre & Co. complex at 263 Main St., a warren of historic buildings dating back to the 19th century, into a living museum and destination similar to Old Sturbridge Village.

The proposal is in line with the wishes of Comstock Fere owner Jere Gettle, who bought the struggling company and its properties in 2011. Gettle, an heirloom seed entrepreneur who also owns the successful Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Co., has said that he wants to transform the complex into an historical attraction.

Gettle also owns the 1767 Simeon Belden house at 249-251 Main St., where Comstock Ferre’s manager lives. Gettle, who has business interests in other parts of the country, and his family also reside part-time in the home.

The property was most recently a coffee shop, and a similar small business or office space might be a good fit, the report finds. But the best option may be to move the historic structure to 32 Church St. and turn the lot into a small park, the report says.

The Masonic Temple at 245 Main St., built in 1922, was gutted for condominiums that were never constructed. The building has been vacant for more than a decade.

The report recommends redeveloping this structure into market-style shops similar to Faneuil Hall in Boston; a performance space; or residential units.

Virtually all the proposed uses are unprofitable, the report says, pointing to the need for governmental or foundation assistance such as grants or tax breaks.

“We’ve looked at the numbers,” Gillespie said. “There’s literally a gap in the bottom line. That’s not a surprise. Everyone understands that historical preservation is sometimes a community endeavor.”

Story by Christopher Hoffman, Hartford Courant

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