Filling storefronts

There is perhaps nothing more demoralizing to downtown revitalization efforts than vacant storefronts, which is why a program that provides start-up businesses with rent-free space in New London is well worth the effort and the relatively small state investment.

Seven storefront businesses have recently appeared along State Street, providing a feeling of economic vitality. Expect more to open soon.

No one should be under the illusion that all these operations will succeed. Establishing a small retail business is a tough challenge and failure rates are high. But any successes will improve the situation downtown, increase foot traffic, and lay the seeds for more growth.

The state calls the revitalization effort CreateHereNow, introduced by the Department of Economic and Community Development in 20 cities across Connecticut. Assisting in the effort locally is the New London Main Street program. Landlords with vacant storefronts commit to providing rent-free space for at least three months, giving these new enterprises a chance to become established, with rent gradually increased thereafter to a market rate.

Property owners get space filled with occupants they hope turn into paying tenants. So far, four landlords are participating, providing space for businesses offering a variety of goods and services, including eyeglass sales, a boutique cooperative, skateboard shop, bike repairs, a children's learning center, wellness services and a furniture and design store.

With its shoreline location, its train, bus and ferry transportation services carrying thousands of people daily, its artistic community and wealth of historic structures, New London seems forever poised at the brink of fulfilling its potential.

The challenge is generating greater foot traffic on downtown streets, including persuading more of the people using its transportation services to spend a bit of time there. To attract people, the downtown needs the shops and services to entice them, but to succeed these operations need the people. It's an age-old conundrum.

A few years down the line, a National Coast Guard Museum planned for the waterfront will help generate that foot traffic. In the meantime, this storefront initiative, with a state investment of only $500,000 to administer it, could provide the spark that fires up some downtown progress.

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