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CreateHereNow celebrates New London as buds of progress start to bloom

New London — The Whaling City's business, arts and philanthropic communities joined with state and local government Saturday evening as the city gathered for a showcase of newly inhabited downtown storefronts.

The showcase served as the ceremonial grand opening of businesses developed through CreateHereNow New London, which was launched in February at the behest of New London Main Street to fill vacant storefronts throughout the city's downtown neighborhood with local small businesses.

The event began at the Garde Arts Center, where Gemma E. Moran was presented with the state's inaugural Placemaking Award from CreateHereNow for her "uncompromising commitment, dedication, humanity, inspiration, vision and determination," said Virginia Mason, president and CEO of United Way of Southeastern Connecticut.

Moran, who recently turned 90, founded a food bank in New London 25 years ago. The food bank, now known as the Gemma E. Moran United Way/Labor Food Center, provides food and household goods to about 100 free food distribution centers in New London County and helps feed about 22,000 people each month through affiliated feeding sites and its mobile food pantry.

"I regret that I have only one life to give to the labor movement, to the United Way, to humanity," Moran told the assembled crowd of roughly 100 people. "I will accept this award on behalf of every single human being that has touched my life, and on behalf of everyone here tonight, but I will not accept it for me alone."

After a group of fifth-graders from the Nathan Hale Arts Magnet School, who are projected to be among the first class to graduate from the planned arts magnet high school at the Garde, led a rendition of "Happy Birthday" for Moran, the crowd processed down State Street and into the fledgling shops.

Among the new businesses showcased during Saturday's grand opening event were a bicycle repair shop, a furniture and design store, a wellness cooperative, an independent eyeglass retailer, a skateboard shop and a children's learning center.

CreateHereNow is a statewide initiative to "catalyze creative and innovative people within their communities by re-purposing under-utilized storefronts and historic buildings to become hives of community energy and activity," according to the organization's website.

"CreateHereNow develops creative financing strategies, mentors new businesses and utilizes assets such as vacant storefronts and enthusiastic commercial property owners, while leveraging funds from overlooked sources," according to the program, which is part of a $500,000 statewide project coordinated by the state Department of Economic and Community Development.

"This is a great example of how the state, the city, local organizations and private businesses can partner together to grow our local economy," Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio said. "Vacant storefronts create darkened streetscapes and hold back economic progress. By creating these start-up businesses, we can kick-start a new period of growth in New London's downtown."

Through the cooperation of landlords, the program offers participating business owners at least three months free or reduced rent to occupy the spaces, with payments that increase progressively to eventually reach market rates once the new business is established.

"Having help with the rent is huge, because those initial few months are when you're putting out all the money you have to really get the business going," said Siobhan Burns, who owns and operates The Eyeglass Lass on State Street. "It's almost like having a hand holder, which is nice."

Twitter: @ColinAYoung


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