Connecticut has long been a destination for its fall foliage, charming coastal communities and huge casinos, but the recent approval of a referendum in Preston could bring a bit of Hollywood to the southeastern part of the state.

Sixty percent of the small town’s 3,400 eligible voters last week turned out to have their say on whether the town should move forward on negotiations with New York-based Utopia Studios.

“That is [a] huge [turnout] for a referendum,” said Preston First Selectman Robert Congdon.

The company wants to build a $1.6 billion development that would include movie studios, theme parks, a performing arts college and hotels on the site of the former Norwich Hospital.

The town has been looking for proposals for the site for several months, and the state – which currently owns the site but wants to sell it to Preston – has been searching for a developer for years. In the latest round, 12 developers submitted proposals, according to Congdon. Utopia’s was the most promising.

“Utopia’s the only one that came through the due diligence with the business plan and financing,” Congdon said.

Preston residents voted 1,508 to 256 to allow the town to move ahead with negotiations for a development deal with Utopia, according to the Associated Press. Many people in town are excited about the potential of having a movie studio and theme park in their back yards, Congdon said.

The next step is for Preston’s Board of Selectmen and the Norwich Hospital Advisory Committee to negotiate with Utopia for 60 to 120 days. Once they reach a development agreement, it will go back to the voters for another referendum.

Utopia’s chairwoman is actress Cathy Moriarty. Her husband, Joseph Gentile, is the developer’s chief financial officer.

“I take nothing for granted,” said Gentile, who appeared at the town library after the vote, according to the AP. “The biggest thing this means to me is the community is engaged.”

The company is also planning to clean up any environmental damage to the property.

‘A Great Opportunity’

The land on which the project would be developed is a 470-acre site located mostly in Preston, but with some of the acreage spilling over into Norwich. The boarded-up buildings that made up Norwich Hospital – a state mental health facility that closed about 10 years ago – still dot the land.

The state owns the site, and will continue to do so until it identifies the extent of the environmental remediation needed to clean it up. The state Office of Policy and Management tried for years to find a developer.

Two other developers offered proposals to the state late last year – before it decided to sell the land – but neither was detailed enough and both lacked specific financial information. The Office of Policy and Management most recently put out a Request for Proposals a year ago, hoping to attract a developer that would be right for the area. Some developers showed interest, but in the end none of the proposals were thorough enough and didn’t meet the requirements set forth in the request, so the state decided to sell the land.

It has offered the land to Preston for $1, but can’t sell until the extent of the cleanup work needed is identified.

However, Utopia has offered to clean up the site, regardless of whether the project moves forward. Town officials and the developer have agreed on a “memorandum of understanding” for the proposal, which would give Preston millions of dollars, according to the AP.

Utopia has agreed to bond the estimated $30 million to $40 million needed to clean up the site, which would guarantee the cleanup regardless of whether the development takes place. Utopia also would deposit $4.5 million in a town escrow account and pay the town $7 million in annual development fees.

If Utopia defaults on the project at any time, it has between two and four years to complete the work and the town can proceed with a tax foreclosure.

Utopia is planning a 12-year, three-phase development that will depend on local, state and federal approvals. The project would “build on existing regional assets and utilize community input to create a first-class destination resort sensitive to the town’s and the community’s historical integrity and character,” according to Utopia’s proposal.

The key points of the development are the production campus, Utopia Studios, which would include movie and television soundstages and music recording studios; Utopia Studios Theme Parks, which would be a four-day, all-year and all-weather set of five themed parks similar to Universal Studios; and Utopia School of the Arts, a performing arts college that would use some of the existing buildings on the site.

In addition, the company is planning 4,200 hotel rooms on the property in family resort hotels. A convention center resort is also a possibility, but would be developed on the Norwich portion of the property by an independent developer chosen by Utopia.

The construction of the property could start next year, according to Congdon. The environmental cleanup could begin as soon as the town closes the purchase of the land from the state, which could happen as soon as October.

“We’re trying to work in that time frame,” Congdon said.

Supporters of the entertainment complex told the Associated Press they liked the opportunities for jobs, tax cuts and fun.

“It would be a great opportunity for people, something for them to do and jobs for the younger generation,” said Melinda Andrews, 52, whose 16-year-old son attends Ledyard High School.

Pat Murphy, a 62-year-old custodian for town schools, voted “yes” because of the promise Utopia has made to give the school system $300,000 a year, according to the AP.

The presence of the studios and the theme parks would enhance the tourism draw of the area, according to the project’s proposal.

“[Utopia] is envisioned to work as an epicenter, or anchor and destination location, for the other popular tourism sites located in close proximity to our proposed development,” according to the proposal. “Currently, the site is located between the region’s two existing casinos, which cater to over 25 million visitors per year. Utopia Studios will enhance this dense, well-funded tourist market by providing a family-oriented destination location within the largest tourist attraction locale in the state of Connecticut.”

Although the project could bring thousands of visitors to Preston every year, Congdon doesn’t think it will change the town too much.

“I think we’re already been changed by two of the world’s largest casinos on each border,” he said.