The loss of a major employer can ruin a community, and in manufacturing-heavy New England, many towns and cities have struggled to deal with the closing of plants, mills or other large businesses. The effect is doubled in New Hampshire, which relies so heavily on local property taxes. Here, there is the loss of jobs that puts residents in a bind, plus the hit to tax revenue, which results either in major cuts to services or hikes to the rest of the taxpayers.
When Troy Mills, which once employed more than 400 workers, shut down and filed for bankruptcy in 2001, both these effects were felt in Troy. Add to that the eyesore of an abandoned 19-acre property in the middle of town and that the textile operation had left the land and buildings polluted enough that it was designated a federal Superfund site, and it’s easy to see how the closure could wreak havoc with the town for decades. And it has.
The story that’s played out in Troy may feel familiar to residents of other communities. The town’s signature business wound up in bankruptcy court in West Virginia, where the company’s headquarters had relocated. The town, seeking to protect a major source of revenue — Troy Mills accounted for about $1 million, or 8 percent, of the town’s tax receipts — and nearby property owners and residents, held a lien on the property. The court eventually awarded the entire site to the town.
And that was the beginning of a lengthy saga that included the selectmen setting up a new panel specifically to deal with the property, multiple developers expressing interest, millions of dollars spent cleaning up the pollution, and lots of infighting and scandal.
Much of this might have been avoided had the selectmen opted simply to auction off the property immediately. Planning board members and others argued for that approach, and brought the issue to voters, but as with other huge, vacated industrial sites in the region, the potential was too much to ignore. That potential included both what Troy Mills could once again represent to the town, and the potential for disaster if the “wrong” buyer acquired it.
So it has sat, though not inactive. At times, parts of the buildings have been leased to other businesses. And there’s been that ongoing cleanup effort. The EPA substantially finished its Superfund work in 2005, but that was only part of the pollution. The rest was cleaned up over the next decade or so using more than $1.5 million in Brownfields grants and other funding.
Meanwhile, the Troy Redevelopment Group, appointed by the selectmen, entertained a variety of developers and plans. Among the various visions woven for the site: residential condo units; senior assisted living; an upscale grocery store; a heated indoor swimming pool; a pharmacy; a health club; rooftop gardens; a movie theater; a hydroponic fish farm, distribution network and farm-to-table restaurant; storage units; a conference facility; high-speed Internet service; educational and research facilities; a charter school; and, of course, manufacturing.
Out-of-state developer Robert Hanson spent more than a decade extolling some of those plans, saying he was prepared to generate as much as $30 million of investment funds to redevelop the site. But by 2015 — after a recession, rezoning, back-room deals and the resignation and reappointment of the entire redevelopment group — he bowed out. Then he threatened to sue the town.
In 2016, the redevelopment group filed for bankruptcy. Its attorney in the case filed papers with the court to abandon the property. And there it sat, in limbo, until the selectmen appointed themselves as the newest redevelopment group and began entertaining offers anew.
This month, the group said it’s received an offer from the New York City-based management firm Cougar Capital to purchase the property for $288,000. The firm is planning to renovate the property and create 135 apartments, according to Selectman Richard Thackston, and the entire development would — like Hanson’s 2005 plan — cost about $30 million.
This time there is no pollution cleanup. The investing group should be well aware of the possibility of any economic downturn due to the COVID-19 pandemic. And there should be no friction between the selectmen and the redevelopment group. If all goes well, Troy may finally see a positive return on the property that’s haunted it for almost 20 years. It would be a much-needed shot in the arm.
“I’m glad someone wants to invest in Troy ... it bodes well for our region as a whole,” Thackston said.
That it does.