Development dream: 'Picture yourself in Norwich'

Norwich - A paparazzi of sorts greeted participants of the Norwich Community Development Corp. annual meeting Thursday as they arrived on the fifth floor of the mostly vacant Mercantile Exchange building on Main Street.

NCDC staff and volunteers snapped shots of guests from various angles in keeping with the theme of "Picture Yourself in Norwich." The fifth floor was decked out like a movie studio, with a bedroom in one space, asking people to picture themselves living in downtown Norwich. A wine cocktail bar occupied one corner, with a sign noting that Norwich is within one hour of 16 wineries in the Connecticut Wine Trail.

The corporate corner office, with a desk and NCDC pens and notepaper, took the space with panoramic views of Norwich Harbor and the Marina at American Wharf below.

"The Mercantile has eight corners waiting for you," the sign said. "Downtown is a great place to have your office,"

But as NCDC President Robert Mills said later, Norwich needs to market itself better to create a demand for its downtown assets.

Those fifth-floor windows are still framed with rough wood, insulation exposed around the edges. The floor is bare concrete, and the sprinkler system and support beams hang overhead.

NCDC officially owns the Mercantile office complex, but the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe has the master lease for the entire building. Much of the space remains available, awaiting completion until a tenant is identified.

Mills told more than 50 business and city leaders who attended the meeting that NCDC is launching a new mission. For five decades, the nonprofit economic development agency built projects, from the industrial park at the western edge of the city to the downtown state courthouse to the Norwich Transportation Center and the Mercantile.

Now, Mills said, the agency will concentrate on marketing the city, retaining and expanding businesses in order to create the "buzz" that Norwich has many assets to offer.

To that end, NCDC officials have spread out, joining 23 boards in southeastern Connecticut and beyond to make connections.

Mills made one connection at a "Connecticut Treasures" fundraiser in West Hartford for CPTV in June.

Jerry Franklin, president of CPTV, guest speaker at Thursday's meeting, described how Mills cornered him and chided the public broadcasting network for ignoring Norwich.

Conversations led to action, and CPTV recently sent three crews to Norwich to film segments with business owners and arts advocates.

The short films will air Thursday evenings on CPTV.

CPTV is raising money to produce 50 features showcasing Connecticut's cultural assets. Two will be in Norwich - the Slater Memorial Museum and the historic Norwichtown Cemetery.

The public TV network needs to raise about $4,000 for the Norwichtown Cemetery program.

Franklin said he attends many functions similar to the NCDC annual meeting across the state but said the message he heard Thursday was different. In Bridgeport, he said for comparison, they talk about politics amid the major problems the city faces.

"You don't talk about politics," Franklin said. "You talk about individual responsibilities."

Kent Baker, who retired Thursday as NCDC board chairman, made that the theme of his departing statement, asking all NCDC officials, board members, city leaders, city employees, business owners and volunteers to work together and ask themselves what part they can play to improve Norwich. He said downtown should be the core of Norwich revitalization, and although efforts haven't worked yet, NCDC and other city organizations will not stop trying.

"Everyone here has a part in the city of Norwich," Baker said. "We have to check egos at the door. We all have to work together."

New Chairman Frank Blanchard, owner of Prime Electric in the Norwich Business Park, pledged that NCDC would work closely with city leaders on the city's new draft plan of development. He called the "an impressive document" and said NCDC staff and board will help the city implement it.

c.bessette@theday.com

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