New London Main Street helps revitalize the city

As a kid growing up in the New London area, a trip to town was an exciting adventure.

The Mohegan Hotel (a mini reproduction of New York's Plaza) had restaurants, a beautiful roof top ballroom, a barber shop and a great adjacent market.

Petersen's ice cream parlor lured young and old alike, crowds still clogged downtown for the Yale-Harvard regatta, there were four movie houses, all kinds of shops, parades up State Street on holidays and, unknown to me at my young age, "tenderloin" for naval personnel.

Even after the whaling era had long gone and the crash of '29 had decimated what was left of any residual wealth from that era, the proud ghosts of those days and the golden age of the Palmers, Harknesses, Plants and Guthries et al. were still evident in the fading glory of Pequot Avenue's esplanade.

By the '60s big stores had set up shop out of downtown, sapping in-town businesses. Downtown became less and less alluring. The elegant 18th century Mount Vernon house was among the landmark buildings torn down to make room for a supermarket parking lot, and much of the city's charming ambiance was sacrificed to the gods of "progress".

By the '90s I had little reason or enthusiasm to venture into town, except to attend Day board meetings or catch a ferry or a train. Empty store fronts abounded and bore mute testimony to the various attempts to "revitalize" New London (The only successful initiatives seemed to be those that took advantage of the town's unique architectural history, such as Starr Street). The rest was a commercial waste land.

Finally in 1998 New London Main Street opened its doors, and at last its coordinated and thoughtful efforts began to change the existing climate from desperation to hope.

The atmosphere amplified the success of such projects as the Hygienic and the Garde Arts Center and the City Center District. Good restaurants and nightlife began to flourish and downtown started to throb with the beat of music, the arts, all informed by the enthusiastic participation of young entrepreneurs.

The downtown face has changed for the better. An open plaza with an amphitheater, sculpture and a fountain; a new setting for the trolley visitor information station; a waterfront promenade, entrances to "The District" as it's called, with textured sidewalks, lighting and landscaping, highway signs indicating an historic attraction and way finding signs that orient tourists. The good/bad news is how hard it now is to find on-street parking!

Key to these improvements has been the little engine that could - New London Main Street, a small non-profit with a big vision that has harnessed volunteer brains and brawn to create miracles.

Several years ago, along with a number of these dreamers, I thought an ice skating rink would be a good antidote to New London's doldrums. I had seen Greenport, N.Y. reinvent itself with such a facility.

Then I met the people at New London Main Street and the idea began to take shape. I led a tour with key New Londoners and Main Street staff to see Greenport's success. This past winter, the rink came to be, and it brought thousands of people and business to downtown during the slowest months of the year - an exciting and gratifying success.

Partnering with the Garde Arts Center, the Hygienic, Cross Sound Ferry, The Day and other key stake holders, Main Street leverages its assets to bring about positive change.

As part of a nationwide network of communities trying to revitalize historic downtowns, it takes successful ideas and templates from other places and applies them here. A good example is The District website, which helps to drive business to District shops, restaurants, attractions and events.

Its volunteers fan out around downtown, conducting surveys, dropping off event flyers and District map and Guides (another Main Street effort), and along the way eating and shopping. At last New London has an organization that can continue its march toward a colorful and prosperous future: New London Main Street.

George C. White is founder of the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford and a former member of The Day's board of trustees.

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