Program to boost downtown Norwich is off to a slow start

Norwich - Two years after voters approved a $3.3 million downtown revitalization program, only about $66,000 has been approved for three small downtown businesses, as nearly two dozen applications remain in the tedious process of writing and revising the mandated business plans.

Norwich Community Development Corp. officials gave the City Council an update Monday on the three downtown revitalization programs they admitted have dragged on slowly since voters approved the innovative bond package in November 2010.

NCDC President Robert Mills told the City Council that about 90 percent of the applications never even get to the formal application process.

Many are simply ideas for new businesses by people who have never owned businesses or even written business plans, Mills said. Currently there are 42 "qualified entries" and 23 active applications.

Many of the active applications also need a great deal of technical assistance to help applicants define and write their business plans. NCDC Program Manager Jackie Roy doesn't write the plans for them but offers a lot of technical assistance, Mills said.

Aldermen and NCDC officials expressed frustration at the slow progress of the grant and loan applications. Aldermen repeatedly asked why so many applications are denied or never get to the review stage.

To date, the agency has approved only a $22,700 loan for the Mediterranean Express Café at the corner of Main Street and Broadway and two rental rebates for 3-D Dance Studio on Franklin Street and Northeast Illuminating, a company that markets efficient lighting equipment.

No applications for the building code upgrade matching grant program have been approved. That program was seen as critical to revitalization downtown by upgrading upper stories of vacant buildings for residential apartments and offices.

Mills said NCDC was bombarded with inquiries in the weeks just prior to voters' approval of the package and immediately following approval. But most of the ideas never made it to the application stage.

Mills said agency officials hope to work with the City Council to "tweak" the programs in the hopes of generating more interest and quality applications.

Alderman Charles Jaskiewicz said the city should "reshape" the programs and look into whether Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's jobs creation programs could be used in combination with the city's incentive programs to attract new businesses to downtown.

Jaskiewicz and Alderman Mark Bettencourt also asked what roles various city departments have in the economic development packages.

Mayor Peter Nystrom stressed that while the city approved the bonds, money is not borrowed and does not incur interest expenses until applications are approved and the money is ready to be spent.

NCDC has authority to spend up to $675,000 for administration and marketing, but has spent $52,951 to date on staff time, marketing and associated expenses.

c.bessette@theday.com

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