Norwich - A Bloomfield businessman recently visited the city planning office and remarked to Planning Director Peter Davis that he normally just drives through Norwich to get to the casinos.
This time, he stopped for some business, and was smitten. Davis took him on a brief tour and the man raved about the historic architecture, the restaurants and the waterfront.
While local residents often criticize the downtown as rundown and vacant, outsiders have noticed the urban center's improvement over the years.
Today, the American Planning Association is naming downtown Norwich as one of the "10 Great Neighborhoods for 2013" under the organization's Great Places in America program. APA noted some $70 million in public and private investment in the downtown over the past decade, the ethnic and cultural diversity and efforts to foster economic growth and jobs.
City officials plan to celebrate the designation Oct. 15 at 3:30 p.m. with an event on the steps of City Hall. No other city in New England made the top 10 list.
"Downtown Norwich could well be another abandoned mill town had merchants, residents and the city's community development agency not banded together some three decades ago to document their neighborhood's historic resources, produce a downtown plan and begin implementing that plan," said APA Chief Executive Officer Paul Farmer. "Long-term planning takes a long-term commitment, and Norwich is reaping the benefits with gradual but steady improvements to downtown."
Davis said APA contacted him recently and said Norwich had been nominated for the Top 10 designation and he needed specifics. Davis asked Norwich Community Development Corp. Vice President Jason Vincent to help compile information.
The $70 million total includes the $20 million restoration of the Wauregan Hotel into affordable housing apartments, the $10 million renovation of Otis Library, the $22 million new transportation center along with upgrades to the Marina at American Wharf, the opening and expansion of the Harp & Dragon Irish pub on Main Street and several other new restaurants.
In 2010, voters approved a $3.38 million downtown revitalization bond for building upgrades, lease rebates and loans to businesses. While progress has been slow, the APA found the investment to be a positive step in downtown planning.
"We see it every day, every month, so we don't notice the improvements," Vincent said.
Like Davis' recent experience with a stranger from Bloomfield, Vincent accompanied a Central Connecticut State University professor to Norwich this week to meet with the Greeneville Neighborhood Revitalization Zone Committee. The professor hadn't seen downtown Norwich since the early 1990s, and was impressed with the turnaround.
"He said it was amazing how much better downtown Norwich looks now from the early '90s," Vincent said.