Norfolk officials have been trying for years to develop the center of town into a vibrant, bustling space that will both give residents a place to mingle and shop, and give the town a revenue boost in the form of new commercial taxes.
Now officials hope they’re on the verge of a solution — a bridge over the commuter-rail tracks downtown that would connect existing roadways and open up new parcels of land for business development.
Funding for the bridge, in the form of a $1 million state grant and a $2 million zero-interest, 20-year loan, was included in a transportation bond bill signed by Governor Deval Patrick earlier this month. However, it’s possible that not all of the projects in the bill will actually receive funding, so town officials continue to aggressively seek alternative forms of state aid for the project.
James Lehan, chairman of Norfolk’s Board of Selectmen, said the proposed new bridge and road, which would stretch from the intersection of Boardman Street and Main Street to the roundabout at Meetinghouse Road, are “critically important” to the town’s development efforts.
“It creates a traffic flow,” Lehan said. “If you’re going to open a business, I would think you would want it to be on a road that has traffic.”
Although funding for the bridge isn’t guaranteed, the project should be attractive to the state because it tests out the theory that new commercial taxes will enable the town to easily pay back the state loans, said state Representative Dan Winslow, a Norfolk Republican.
“From a statewide perspective, if this kind of approach works in Norfolk, it would be able to be replicated in other cities and towns, and allow the state to stretch its infrastructure dollars by a factor of two or three,” Winslow said. “It actually could break the mold for infrastructure and transportation funding.”
Town officials have long hoped that Stop & Shop, whose parent company owns a large parcel in the center of town, would build a supermarket there, but those plans have never come to fruition.
Lehan said the new bridge and road could lead to a vibrant downtown even if Stop & Shop never develops its land.
“What we believe will really work well in Norfolk are small business owners, people that want to open a wine and cheese shop or small delis,” Lehan said. “Even if Stop & Shop is out of the picture, this still works.”
Town Administrator Jack Hathaway said development resulting from the new bridge and road could lead to between $100,000 and $300,000 a year in additional commercial tax revenue. But, he said, the development of downtown is about improving the quality of life for residents, not just the town’s bottom line.
“It is absolutely about providing more services’’ to the community, Hathaway said. “Hopefully a grocery store will come in, some high-end specialty stores, any of those things will be welcome. A restaurant or two would be great.”
John Weddleton, chairman of the town’s Conservation Commission and a real estate developer, said he would welcome the opportunity to build commercial projects on land he owns near the center of town.
Weddleton’s land is zoned for residential development, but he said he would support a move to rezone it for commercial uses, provided that the infrastructure is in place to create a better traffic flow downtown.
“No one’s going to put in retail shops and restaurants on a dead-end street,” Weddleton said.