High hopes: For all the talk of a new vision for New London, there is no plan, little leadership

The Federalist homes of Starr Street in New London.
The Federalist homes of Starr Street in New London.

I had such high hopes, I really did. When New London decided to convert to a strong mayor form of government, I was sure that a corner had been turned, that this form of governance would permit a true leader to articulate a vision for New London's future and inspire its citizens and business owners to push it forward.

I lived in New London for 34 years, attended the public schools and even graduated from Connecitcut College as a "townie." After I finally left in 1994, I still retained a soft spot for the city - its diverse people, its quirky businesses, the "good bones" of the extant parts of the historic downtown, its beaches and waterfront, its compact, walkable streetscape. New London has tremendous potential, as one business owner reminded people in a profoundly depressing article in The Day, "Hard Winter, city hall frustrate downtown New London merchants," (Feb. 23).

I have been following developments (and the lack thereof) in New London with more interest since Mayor Daryl Finizio's election. And I am still waiting to hear a clear vision for the city, and a plan to implement it, that residents and businesses can get behind; particularly around economic development.

Perhaps I am just missing something, I thought, so I logged onto the city's website to see what I could find. After a little scrolling around, I found three documents - a Consolidated Plan for Housing and Development, a Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (which sounds promising), and a Downtown Action Plan (which sounds really, really promising).

The Consolidated Plan is pages and pages of vague goals, such as preserving and expanding housing stock - those are goals, not a plan. There is no plan. The Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy is listed, but not provided. Maybe there is a strategy, but for some reason the mayor does not seem to want people to know what it is. More likely, perhaps there is no strategy. I guess if you don't have a plan you don't need a strategy to implement it. The more exciting sounding Downtown Action Plan dates to 2001, and envisions a thriving downtown by 2008. So, anyway.

Whenever I visit New London, or pass through on the train to New York, I am taken by the assets it already has, and the serious stakeholders who cannot let the city fail. The water, the transportation infrastructure, the historic architecture, Conn and Mitchell colleges, the Coast Guard Academy, the hospital, the Garde Art Center, the Hygienic, Ocean Beach Park, and the small business owners who keep at it in the face of unrelenting adversity, trying to improve downtown. Unlike some other cities that have had to reinvent themselves, New London has these many assets and more. What is needed is a vision to bring the pieces of the puzzle together, and a leader to carry it out.

The Urban Land Institute (uli.org), a highly respected land use and development policy organization, provides a terrific free service to cities and towns called a TAP - Technical Assistance Panel. ULI will, upon request, assemble a panel of experts on economic development, including architects, planners and financiers, to visit and tour the city for a couple of days, review the demographic and economic data, interview stakeholders like business owners and residents, hold a public meeting for community input and provide a report that can be the basis for a realistic vision for the redevelopment of the downtown - all for the cost of housing and feeding the panel members.

They come in, they work like crazy for a brief time, they leave, and they are objective. I have seen some TAP Reports, and they are creative and intelligent, but realistic.

It is time to stop blaming the current situation on those who have served before, look to the future, and in an organized way really take stock of what the city has, what the obstacles are that must be overcome, then articulate a vision and devise an action plan to carry it out. A ULI Technical Assistance Panel can help get that underway. Because the panelists donate their time, it is not an excuse to say "we don't have the money."

Peter O'Connor is an attorney and development consultant based in Boston. He can be reached at peteroconnorboston@gmail.com.

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