New London looks great in spring

It was about this time of year, back in 2008, that a group of cruise ship visitors to New London was heading downtown aboard a shuttle bus when someone gave the flowering trees along Eugene O'Neill Drive a shout-out.

"Who gave you the cherry trees?" a Florida woman called out from her seat in the back of the bus.

The volunteer tour guide was stumped that morning and didn't know the right answer, which is that the trees were planted as a routine part of a road improvement project and were not a gift.

But every time I see those beautiful trees in full bloom, I remember the impression they once made on a bus full of tourists, most of them seeing the city for the first time.

Cruise ship visits to New London seem to have gone the way of the city manager form of government. And yet the city grows more enchanting and inviting year after year, more for newcomers to discover and admire.

This is a great time of year downtown.

The ice rink is gone and the Parade is back in full open form. (I'm not a big fan of the rink, especially the way it sits crookedly on the space next the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, like a suit jacket that doesn't fit but gets worn anyway.)

Soon, the whale tail fountain will be back on. The weekly farmers market and concerts on the Parade can't be far behind.

Park in the municipal garage on Water Street and you are greeted with signs that indicate a city with a sense of humor. Overhead message boards flash greetings like: "Smile" or "No Swimming."

City Pier is back this spring, looking better than ever. There was a time, during the rebuilding of the pier, with just the stubs of the pilings showing, when it looked like it might never return.

There are more restaurants than ever downtown. Work is under way on another new one at the foot of State Street, across from Union Station.

On the opposite end of State Street, up the hill, is one of the region's best groceries for fresh, organic and local food. There are plenty of other places in town to stop for a coffee or tea, but at Fiddleheads Food Co-op it's only $1 a cup, and you can settle in at tables in the big windows to enjoy it.

There are fewer empty storefronts downtown than any time in recent memory. One of them was filled recently by the handsome new Northern Lights Gems jewelry store on lower State Street, which would hold its own with any of the jewelry stores in Mystic, from which Northern Lights just decamped.

Another empty Bank Street storefront is slated to become a downtown beer brewery.

The young couple that is planning a bookstore downtown, now to be called the Monte Cristo Bookshop, are planning an unconventional community fundraising campaign on kickstarter.com. It's called crowdfunding.

Spring means the Block Island Express will be running soon. That puts downtown New London a short ferry ride away not just from Long Island and Fishers Island but also Block Island. The ferries run frequently all summer.

The city's clam shacks, some of the best in the region, are now open and are not far from downtown, with great water views of their own.

City property deeds recently showed the sale of a waterfront house on Pequot Avenue for $1.4 million, a healthy barometer of the high end of the real estate market.

The annual real estate tax bill for that house runs in the tens of thousands of dollars.

I doubt the new owners will worry as much about the looming tax increase in New London as the city's unemployed, elderly and economically challenged.

That tax hike seems to be the single biggest cloud on the city's horizon.

Spring is not only a time for cherry blossoms. It's also budget season, which doesn't look so bright this year.

This is the opinion of David Collins

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