NL Main Street meets challenge in difficult times

The skating rink set up on Parade Plaza this winter is a visible sign of New London Main Street's efforts downtown.
The skating rink set up on Parade Plaza this winter is a visible sign of New London Main Street's efforts downtown. Tim Cook/The Day Buy Photo

New London is on the brink of unprecedented opportunity. Yes, that's right! In the midst of a devastating economic crisis and record unemployment, New London and other towns and cities in Connecticut are faced with opportunities that can improve the local economy while bringing downtown back to life.

But we must be smart enough and brave enough to recognize and act on these opportunities. Recently there has been quite a bit of discussion in New London as to how the city must become more economically viable. Any economic development professional will tell you that where you have a healthy and vibrant downtown you have the start of a healthy community.

Connecticut Main Street Center exists to be the champion and leading resource for vibrant and sustainable Main Streets as foundations for healthy communities. Our core values are encouraging civic engagement; preservation of historic buildings and places; enlivening of the public realm; creating Main Streets that thrive with a mix of uses, incomes and cultures; and backing responsible policies integrating land-use, housing, transportation and energy.

We provide education and resources, technical assistance and advocacy to local Main Street organizations, including New London Main Street.

New London Main Street reports the net gain or loss of jobs and businesses in its downtown to Connecticut Main Street Center biannually. From June 2007 through December 2011, while the nation experienced the worst recession since the Great Depression, bleeding jobs and businesses, downtown New London has seen a 22 percent increase in net new jobs and a 25 percent increase in net new businesses. Over that same period, there has been 44 percent increase in investment in downtown, about $50 million, of which 92 percent came from the private sector.

Since the New London Main Street program began in 1996, $163.5 million has been invested in downtown New London. When one compares this to the amount of money "invested" in the New London Main Street through its annual operating budget, for every dollar invested in New London Main Street, $43.75 has been invested in downtown.

Downtown must be managed to be successful and sustainable. The Main Street 4-Point Approach, the method utilized by New London Main Street and all other Designated Main Street Programs, ensures that downtown is revitalized and managed comprehensively. This job is not easy, nor is it quickly accomplished. But whether the district is a historic downtown, an urban commercial district or a small village center, revitalization begins with "Clean, Safe & Friendly."

The long-term economic health of downtown must begin by ensuring that the district is clean and attractive, that it is a safe place - and feels and looks safe, and that it is welcoming to people of all ages and backgrounds: residents, visitors, businesses and investors.

There is no doubt that economic development is the most difficult and complex aspect of improving the health and vibrancy of a community - and it must be done via collaboration between a strong municipal economic development department, with partners from chambers of commerce, regional economic development agencies and small business resources.

Connecticut Main Street Center believes (and has seen) that downtown revitalization is not truly sustainable unless the public and private sectors collaborate. But Clean, Safe & Friendly comes first. Businesses cannot succeed, and developers are not interested, unless downtown is inviting and attractive.

The economic success that New London Main Street has tracked and helped generate demonstrates what Main Street programs are accomplishing throughout this state and the country, producing some of the best economic development return on investment.

New London Main Street has a distinct mission to preserve, enhance and promote New London's Historic Waterfront District, using comprehensive and strategic goals that are intended to bring the heart of the community back to life. With its many partners, the organization has done an exemplary job in making downtown more attractive, promoting downtown, and executing events and activities that attract people and enliven the historic waterfront district.

John Simone is president and CEO of Connecticut Main Street Center.

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