Downtown boosters across region banding together

If you like Restaurant Week in Westerly, you might like the Food Stroll in New London, and if you love an outdoor downtown art show in one town, you'll probably enjoy its counterpart in a neighboring town.

A new coalition of downtown advocates from throughout southeastern Connecticut and southern Rhode Island are banking on the above assumptions. "Destination Downtown" aims to cross-promote events in the region's historic downtowns, combining resources to create a website to list attractions ranging from art shows to restaurants, shops and performing arts venues.

"We're very excited about it, because the group itself is made up of people sincerely interested in promoting historic downtowns, not taking a strip mall and calling it a downtown," said Penny Parsekian, executive director of New London Main Street. "It's important to note that these are real places with real history."

To date, participants have included representatives from chambers of commerce, Main Street and merchants' associations, development corporations and arts organizations from Norwich, New London, Niantic, Mystic, Westerly and Pawcatuck and Wickford, R.I.

The concept started in September 2011 with a three-hour open forum organized by Lisa Konicki, executive director of the Greater Westerly-Pawcatuck Area Chamber of Commerce, at the Westerly Public Library. Participants discussed their various events, shared successes and challenges, what worked and what didn't, Konicki said, and decided not to let the concept die.

Rather than viewing one another as competitors for the arts-loving public or history buffs, they agreed to help one another, she said. In the weeks that followed, organizers of various events contacted one another for tips and advice. For example, New London Main Street reached out to Konicki for a rundown of Restaurant Week in Westerly. Konicki shared not only promotional materials and organizational charts but budgets and logistics.

Jackie Roy, program manager for the Norwich Community Development Corp., said several Norwich events and venues could be promoted through Destination Downtown, including the Spirit of Broadway Theater, the Norwich Arts Center, the Rock the Docks summer Norwich Harbor concerts and several downtown restaurants.

"There are some really good restaurants down here, they're just well-kept secrets," Roy said.

Destination Downtown wants to take the next step and become a formal organization. Konicki turned to Chelsea Groton Bank President Michael Rauh as a "seasoned facilitator on downtown revitalization" and asked him to become a partner.

Rauh said the group focused discussions and decided the top priority should be joint promotion of their assets to reach a broader audience. They created a logo and developed a rough budget and applied for grants. Anticipating success, they started circulating a request for proposals for a website and Facebook page designer who also could help the participating organizations promote one another through links on their individual websites.

Konicki estimated the group needs about $15,000 to get off the ground. On Friday, the effort received a boost with news of preliminary approval for a $5,000 grant from the Westerly Land Trust. The state of Rhode Island Department of Housing must give final approval.

The group also has applied for a $7,000 grant from the Connecticut Commission on Culture and Tourism and a $1,000 grant from Chelsea Groton Bank Foundation to match the startup $1,000 grant provided by the Westerly-Pawcatuck chamber.

Rauh said the partner agencies will be asked to contribute soon, but Destination Downtown hasn't yet determined the amount.

"Conceptually, they're all committed to it," Rauh said.


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