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Norwich officials discuss successes, challenges and plans at Chamber event

Norwich — Breakfast and coffee were provided by two of the recent new downtown Norwich businesses at Friday morning’s State of Norwich presentation by the Greater Norwich Area Chamber of Commerce, proving one point on the session’s theme: that creative entrepreneurs bring vibrancy to the city.

About 70 business representatives, residents and city employees gathered at City Hall to hear updates from Mayor Peter Nystrom, schools Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow and Norwich Community Development Corp. President Robert Mills on the successes, challenges and future plans for the city.

Mills called the current times “the Age of Disruption,” picking up his cellphone to demonstrate the main driver. For example, he said, Norwich has more than 100 AirBnB unregulated room rentals that have hurt local hotel business while not contributing to the city services they might require. Manufacturing jobs nationwide have plummeted in the past 20 years, with the use of robots up 35 percent. Workers find themselves in “co-bot” situations, essentially overseeing the robots doing the more repetitive tasks.

But Norwich has benefited from the recent economic upswing, and Nystrom pointed to the breakfast table in the City Hall meeting room as proof. Breakfast by the new Café Otis, located across from City Hall in the former Norwich Human Services office building, and coffee by neighbor Craftsman Cliff’s Roasters on lower Broadway, graced the table.

Several new businesses have opened downtown, including Apollo Cycles, Melrose Denim and the new S&A Market, all on Franklin Street. Plans for an antique shop and other businesses are underway on lower Main Street, as is a boutique hotel in the former Elks Club building on upper Main Street.

Nystrom and Mills described how Norwich has expanded its outlook to try to draw on the rapid expansions underway at Electric Boat in Groton. From an engineering business poised to relocate from Essex to the Norwich business park, to the waiting lists for new apartments in the major renovation of the Ponemah Mill in Taftville, Norwich already has seen successes in capitalizing on EB’s situation.

But Norwich is looking for more.

The city used $25,000 in marketing money last fiscal year to help produce a promotional video of the city, and purchased memberships in the Eastern Connecticut Association of Realtors, the Connecticut Restaurant Association and the Connecticut Brewers’ Association. In all cases, Mills said, Norwich is the only participating municipality.

Norwich also was the only municipality to participate in the “Leading the Way” event in May, a daylong conference hosted by the Southeastern Connecticut Enterprise Region to help companies connect with representatives at EB and its parent, General Dynamics.

“People from seven states now know about Norwich,” Mills said, referring to the states represented at the conference.

The new $25,000 placed in this year’s city budget will help circulate the city’s marketing materials, Mills said. Four Norwich marketing videos are in the works to highlight living, working and eating in Norwich. A public screening of the videos is planned for Oct. 21 at City Hall.

Norwich also is stressing its growing reputation as “the easiest city to work with” for businesses and developers looking to locate or expand in the city. City building, fire, planning and zoning and Norwich Public Utilities officials meet routinely to assist developers with the regulatory process and obstacles they would need to overcome.

Stringfellow outlined her plans for her first 100 days as head of the Norwich school district, which started with dozens of meetings with city officials, school leaders, parents and teachers. She will continue those meetings, including visits to city schools every Friday to watch education in action. She holds monthly meetings with parents.

The school budget does not have marketing money, Stringfellow said, so she is encouraging teachers, parents and support staff to take to Twitter, Facebook and other social media outlets to broadcast successes and educational highlights going on in city schools. Since she launched the effort at the staff convocation Aug. 26, official Twitter use by school staff jumped from two to 200. She invited attendees at Friday’s State of Norwich program to follow them and join the effort.

Like the economic development effort’s need for public-private partnerships, Stringfellow said the schools need to reach out for support in the community. Career partnerships need to start with middle school students that would continue at Norwich Free Academy, the tech schools or other high schools.

Stringfellow also is working with Norwich police to try to bring school resource officers, which were lost in budget cuts several years ago, back into the schools, as requested by parents and staff.

By June, she pledged, she will release detailed data collected through a staffing and programming audit, as well as a five-year strategic plan for the school district.

c.bessette@theday.com

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