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New London - All up and down State Street, Margaret Bodell has sprinkled seeds of creative new businesses that she hopes will take root in the next few months.
Bodell, project director of CreateHereNow New London, said during a whirlwind tour of the seven businesses set up so far that she has been impressed by the cooperation of downtown landlords in allowing empty storefronts to be occupied for the first three months at no charge - with hopes that these eventually will be paying leaseholders.
So far, four landlords have offered spaces, including the Garde Arts Center.
"That's fantastic," said Bodell, who has worked on the CreateHereNow project at several of 20 cities across the state that have participated in the $500,000 program, which is run through the state Department of Economic and Community Development. "We usually only get two or three.
"They see good things going on," she said of the landlords. "They see more people on the street, and they like the concept."
The groups that have passed muster to become the city's first CreateHereNow storefronts include an independent eyeglass retailer, a cooperative boutique, bike repair shop, wellness cooperative, furniture and design store, skateboard shop and a children's learning center.
"New London is the last of the big projects for CreateHereNow," said Bodell, who kicked off the program in February with the backing of New London Main Street.
At 279 State St., the Rise co-working space will allow artists, nonprofits and others to rent a work area by the day, week or month.
The shared office space, available starting Sept. 2 at a first-month daily discount of $7 for walk-ins, will be open from 6 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, offering free Wi-Fi and room for about 20 freelancers and entrepreneurs to bring their own computers and spend time working with others.
"We believe that this is going to help the economic climate in southeastern Connecticut," said Rise manager Jessica Hill. "A lot of people like to work with other people, especially work-at-home people."
At Cobalt Design, 281 State St., Carlos Carillon, Monica Bottinelli and Lauren Caldwell were busy late last week setting up their store, which features an etagere (free-standing open shelves) that they said once belonged to Marilyn Monroe. It's not easy, said Caldwell, to find classic pieces of mid-20th century design in places other than major urban areas.
"This is to show people - to give them the place to involve themselves with good design," Carillon said.
At the newly established Eyeglass Lass, 277 State St., Siobhan Burns said she is trying to fight against the misconception that an independent optical shop can't compete with the major retailers on price. She said her store features a wide range of vintage and style-conscious frames in the $40 to $400 range.
"There is something for everybody," she said. "I wanted to a have something local, a place where you can find things you can't get in the mall."
Down at State of Makers boutique, jewelry designer Pam Natale leads a group at 311 State St. that will feature handmade work created by people throughout Connecticut. One of the artists is Roger Clements of the Lyme Art Association, who said he was looking for a different space to show his work.
Getting New London's artistic community excited about new business ventures has led to some spinoff activities, pointed out Bodell, who ran into artist Mark McKee putting the finishing touches on a new art installation at Harris Place, 165 State St., in a building owned by George Waterman.
McKee said the installation, a series of 23 1/2-foot-long plastic curtains hung from the high-ceilinged building, will remind people of sails or waves or flags, and he said Butch Rovan, chairman of the music department at Brown University and husband of the newly named Connecticut College president Katherine Bergeron, is composing a musical piece that will be paired with the installation.
"It's a conversation piece," McKee said. "It's responding to the space."
Responding to Bodell's call for new storefront activity, established businesses such as The Hive skate shop, Red Tail Learning Center and New London Healings Arts Center have joined the CreateHereNow effort, allowing them to find better spaces or expanded spaces for their work.
"CreateHereNow's principles are built on placemaking, so to me it's wonderful to see them taking charge and using this initiative," Bodell said.
The initiative also includes Bike New London, which is occupying a space on State Street through the summer where the nonprofit offers free bike repair and other services. Having a storefront in New London, said the nonprofit's leaders Tom Andersson-Monterosso and Theo Maryeski, has brought significantly more attention to the group's efforts to make the city more cycle-friendly.
Bodell estimates that 70 percent of the people in the CreateHereNow program already lived or worked in New London, while about 30 percent are from outside the city. She added that Quinn & Hary, the city's marketing firm, is helping the program reach out to Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York to bring in other potential businesses.
"Once we have a second call go out with our storefronts to show off, we will see another influx of applicants," Bodell said in an email, revealing that businesses from Rhode Island and New York already have committed to new storefronts in the city.