Next challenge for Thames River Placemakers

The Thames River Innovation Place metamorphosed this week from a butterfly into a larva.

While that may sound backwards, it is the cycle of life for what began as soaring, pretty ideas and now must hatch into practical applications, as TRIP promised the state incubator CTNext when it sought, and received, an Innovation Place grant.

The gist of the grant is to spur economic development by joint action of the three municipalities at the mouth of the Thames River — the Town of Groton, City of Groton and New London — and their many private partners in the Thames River Innovation Place. The grant also aims to spur private investment, and will match up to $900,000 spent on the component projects.

It's an appealing idea, but now the participants have to execute. This week they elected a Board of Advisors, approved a job description for an executive director, and found out that they had lost the fiduciary they thought would handle contracts, consultants and recordkeeping.

The initial group, led by the CURE Innovation Commons based at the Pfizer campus in Groton city and Spark Makerspace in downtown New London, convinced CTNext that they could break down the milewide barriers of geography and history and sell the idea of one economic community worth investing, living and learning in, with neighborhoods, restaurants and amenities that will bring in the visitors and the residents.

Based on obvious and often stated economic needs of the area — employee recruitment and retention at Electric Boat, a reliable supply chain for Navy contracts, revitalization of aging neighborhoods, and innovative small business development — they came up with five projects that TRIP will shepherd in ways meant to be unique to the region's shoreline personality.

"Community Concierge," led by the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut, is a program to welcome new employees and potential employees to the area, with special consideration for the large-scale hiring at Electric Boat.

The Connecticut Naval Undersea Supply Chain Consortium is intended to help meet the Navy's need for a reliable supply of parts and will use University of Connecticut resources to promote workforce development in innovative ways.

Placemaking Redevelopment Initiatives & Plans calls attention to the good (mixed use neighborhoods) and the ugly (deferred maintenance) in neighborhoods of the three municipalities, New London, City of Groton and Town of Groton. Since the ultimate purpose of the grant is "placemaking" — creating a sense of the three as an economic unit at the mouth of the Thames River — TRIP will start with a redevelopment scheme for Hodges Square in New London and the Thames Street/Bridge Street area in Groton city. Those are the two neighborhoods where the pedestrian walkway on the north span of the Gold Star Bridge begins and ends; the idea is to make the connection for walkers, runners and cyclists.

The Cultivator Kitchen is envisioned as a private and non-profit partnership within which Spark Makerspace will use its particular methods to develop worker skills for various industries — e.g., the restaurant business — under the tutelage of veterans in their fields.

"Ignite" is a vehicle for connecting people "to spark new ideas and embrace innovation," sounding a bit vague so far but potentially serving as the interstitial fluid in the limbs of the TRIP plan.

The first tasks of the new Board of Advisors, chaired by Sheri Cote, vice president of the Eastern Chamber, will be to hire a director and find a fiduciary. CURE was expected to have taken on that role but instead recommended that TRIP incorporate on its own. What form that might take — a regional development corporation? — it's too soon to tell. To avoid delay TRIP may need to seek another established entity to serve as fiduciary at least temporarily.

The innovation project will face many hurdles in the transition from idea to reality. Among them will to satisfy state funders that it is achieving the goals it set. Thus far the municipalities and their partners have managed to work regionally in unprecedented sharing. That's a good harbinger for a regional "place," to be sure, but TRIP has to get itself up and running before it can do its work.

The editorial board is composed of the publisher and four journalists of varied editing and reporting backgrounds. The board's discussions and information gained from its meetings with political, civic, and business leaders drive the institutional voice of The Day, as expressed in its editorials. The editorial department operates separately from the newsroom.

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