Published January 16. 2013 12:00PM Updated January 17. 2013 12:55PM
New London — When Riverbank Construction breaks ground in May for its 103-unit Village on Thames project in Fort Trumbull, the city can expect more good things to happen, according to the Renaissance City Development Association.
"We are at the tipping point,'' Frank McLaughlin, project manager for RCDA, said Wednesday during a development forum at the Fort Trumbull Conference Center. "When people see we are actually developing at Fort Trumbull, other people will be interested in developing here, too."
He said Fort Trumbull could see the development of a hotel, an indoor water park, a museum, a boat storage facility and a seven-story parking garage.
Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio has said there could be an announcement next month as to where the Coast Guard Museum will be built. Many have speculated it will be located somewhere downtown.
"We don't have to jump out the window'' if that happens, McLaughlin said. "We could become a mecca of museums."
The region already has the Nautilus Museum and Mystic Seaport museum, he said.
The 13-year-old Fort Trumbull Municipal Development Plan earmarked a parcel of land for a Coast Guard Museum, but McLaughlin said another museum could be built in Fort Trumbull, maybe an extension of the Smithsonian museums.
McLaughlin was one of a dozen people, including Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who spoke at the all-day forum "Visions & Plans: New London 2013 & Beyond."
Malloy was in Norwich earlier Wednesday at a Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut breakfast, where he said the state budget he will unveil next week will have no tax increases.
The state has no funds to help with development in New London, but Malloy did pledge his support for the city Wednesday.
"I absolutely love New London," Malloy told about 35 people gathered at the conference. "I think there are great opportunities here. You have a fan and a supporter in me."
Malloy pointed out that years of government policies have contributed to the decline of urban areas, but newer programs — such as education reform — also will help improve smaller cities with urban issues, such as New London, Groton and Norwich.
"We made them (cities) more expensive to live in, with not very good schools and higher crime rates, and then we were surprised when no one wanted to live here,'' he said.
He told the group that addressing education and crime problems, and then focusing on New London's proximity to the water and its historic past, could go a long way in boosting the city's profile.
"If we straighten out some urban-related issues and build on our strengths, advertise appropriately, we will see more people who want to visit here and will want to live here,'' he said.
The forum, hosted by New London Landmarks, featured presentations from groups with various plans for the city, including the Village on the Thames project in Fort Trumbull; an architectural study of three buildings at the corner of State and Bank streets; and proposed upgrades to the downtown municipal parking lot on Eugene O'Neill Drive.
Also speaking was Brian Kent of Kent + Frost Landscape Architects of Mystic, who talked about the city's Creative Placemaking program, which is trying to find ways to better use existing spaces. The group is focusing on Riverside Park and Hodges Square, an area referred to as northeast New London, which was virtually separated from the rest of the city when the twin spans of the Goldstar Memorial Bridge were built more than 40 years ago.
Working with the landscape architecture department at the University of Connecticut, the program is compiling a report with suggestions that include expanding sidewalks and making streets more accessible to pedestrians and bicyclists, putting up signs and improving the facades of existing buildings.
During Wednesday's meeting, Bud Bray, who said he probably has walked or biked more of the city during the past 40 years than anyone else in the room, took exception to all the groups trying to gentrify the city and squeeze out the people who live there. Those who live around Hodges Square, he said, are isolated and neglected by the city because they are poor.
But Sandra Chalk, executive director of New London Landmarks, took exception to Bray's comments.
"We're talking about revitalizing and reconnecting, not about gentrifying,'' Chalk said. "We are trying to make downtown more accessible and not isolate people.
"What's wrong with trying to make it look nice?''