Garde inspires state tourism officials

New London - Top state tourism and economic development officials descended Monday on the Garde Arts Center to talk about the importance of stories and a sense of place that help differentiate Connecticut from other parts of the United States.

And it was the magnificent restoration of the Garde and the energy of the city itself that impressed officials who spoke to about 100 people in the first of a series of three community conversations across the state about the power of place in Connecticut.

"I love the vibe of this place," Kip Bergstrom, executive director of the Commission on Culture and Tourism, said of the city, which he spent some time visiting earlier in the day. "It's a funky place, a diverse place."

The Garde Arts Center, he added, is one of "the beating hearts of New London" that "anchors the redevelopment of State Street."

During a brief panel discussion, State Historian Walter Woodward and writer David Leff, author of the Connecticut tourism guide "Hidden in Plain Sight," bantered with moderator Robert Leaver about some of the city's multilayered stories.

Woodward talked about the story of New London's founder John Winthrop Jr., a Puritan who nevertheless was a practitioner of science and a healer so renowned that people would trek for hours to visit him. Winthrop's legacy today can be seen in the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Inc.'s presence in the area as well as Electric Boat's manufacturing and design of nuclear submarines, he said.

"Origin stories have a way of embedding their way into the psyche of a place," Woodward said.

Leff, former deputy commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Protection, now rebranded as DEEP, said he was proud to have been involved in work to open Fort Trumbull as a state park.

Every place has a story, he said, and every place is beautiful in its own way.

"Stories are not just history - they are prophecy," he said. "The last undiscovered place is the place where we live."

After the presentation, people were placed at tables to tell their stories. The idea was to come up with some insights about local lore and to answer such questions as "how do we deeply engage our residents as storytellers about our great places?"

"We don't go back far enough to tell the story," was one of the insights mentioned by Jeanne Sigel, who runs the Garde with husband Steve.

"The spirit of the story is the most important part of a story," added Bob Mills, president of the Norwich Community Development Corp.

According to a report released this month on "The Power of Place in Connecticut," key insights from the state Department of Economic and Community Development's so-called "placemaking initiatives" from 2011-2013 included the idea that the intimate scale of Connecticut's small cities and towns can be used to its advantage in attracting "downshifting" 30-somethings to the state. These are people with already established careers who are looking for a place to raise a family.

"The thing we need to do to help differentiate Connecticut is to use the power of place to make Connecticut the premier state in which to live and work," the report said. "If we do that well, we will also make Connecticut a compelling destination for those tourists who highly value the varied experiences that our great places offer."

l.howard@theday.com

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