Norwich highlights downtown development progress

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Norwich — City leaders, business owners and enthusiastic advocates hosted a Connecticut Main Street downtown preservation conference Wednesday highlighting the varied efforts to revitalize downtown Norwich, from festivals to financial incentives to free consultations with city permitting agencies to help entrepreneurs with business plans.

More than 100 participants attended the morning conference in the historic Wauregan Hotel ballroom prior to walking tours of downtown with four tour leaders pointing out new and mainstay businesses, renovations underway and troubled long-vacant properties.

Norwich Mayor Peter Nystrom said the city invited Connecticut Main Street to hold the downtown preservation conference in Norwich as part of the city's effort to bring more people downtown.

The tour groups walked past the long-vacant former Reid & Hughes building, turned over by the city to the Women’s Institute for Housing and Economic Development for a proposed $6 million renovation into 20 affordable-housing apartments and main floor commercial storefronts. The project plan was approved Tuesday by the Commission on the City Plan.

The former Majestic Rose restaurant/Elks Club was purchased by a hotel developer. The new Apollo bicycle shop is open in temporary space on Franklin Street and soon will move to lower Broadway. Downtown has two breweries, a couple more brew pubs, a new Asian market and several ethnic food restaurants.

Robert Mills, president of the Norwich Community Development Corp., reviewed the technical aspects of the city’s $3.38 million downtown revitalization program, which was approved by voters in 2010 and provides matching grants for building renovations and lease rebates to business owners to help fill vacant storefronts.

In addition to the financial incentives, city leaders launched a coordinated effort to assist entrepreneurs with the complex permitting process. City building inspectors, fire marshal, planning and zoning officials, Norwich Public Utilities, Uncas Health District and NCDC officials review plans, tour buildings and outline what businesses or building owners would need to move into specific spaces.

“You get all that for free, before you do your business planning,” Mills told the gathering.

But, Mills said, the formula still faces a “Catch 22,” with a lack of “feet on the street.” Chelsea Groton Bank President Michael Rauh — who noted the bank’s presence downtown predated Abraham Lincoln’s famous 1860 campaign stop at the Wauregan — said the bank wanted to help turn around downtown’s plight.

The bank foundation contributed $100,000 in 2018 to the new Global City Norwich to sponsor ethnic-themed street festivals and events to bring people from across the state to downtown Norwich. The initial Polish festival packed the Franklin Street block and was followed by Haitian, Cape Verdean and other festivals.

Suki Lagrito, Global City Norwich coordinator, said people greet her in the streets frequently and offer suggestions for new festivals and events.

Lagrito said it’s not all about “having parties.” Chelsea Groton Bank renewed its $100,000 contribution to Global City Norwich this year, directed toward attracting businesses to downtown buildings and storefronts. The effort includes business classes and training programs to encourage immigrant-owned businesses to capitalize on the city’s multinational population.

Jason Vincent, former NCDC vice president and a partner-owner in Epicure Brewing at 40 Franklin St., said Norwich used to view its growing immigrant population as a liability, with Norwich Public Schools students speaking 30-plus primary languages.

“Global City turns it into an asset,” Vincent said. “The Mexican restaurant is owned by Mexicans, and the Punjabi restaurant is owned by Sikhs.”

Panelists were asked to address negative impressions and attitudes about downtown, especially by city residents. Panelists said changing attitudes is gradual, that after time and much publicity, locals will slowly come to realize the downtown is improving and is attractive.

Vincent, the Stonington planning director, elicited applause in his response to one complaint voiced of many downtowns.

“There’s no place to park. Parking, parking, parking," Vincent said. "There’s 3,000 spaces down here. Walk.”

During the walking tour, standing on Main Street in front of the Harp & Dragon Irish Pub, Vincent again was asked about parking. From that spot, he said, people were a two-minute walk from two city parking garages and a third one open after hours, a five-minute walk from public parking at the east end of Main Street across from the post office and about six minutes from the Norwich Transportation Center near Norwich Harbor.

He acknowledged, however, that there are few signs directing drivers to those spaces.

Architect James Coleman said every city has to market its strengths. For Norwich, he said the historic and varied architecture is “stunning.” He encouraged participants to return to Norwich and noted not only downtown commercial buildings, but the homes on Broadway and Washington Street and elsewhere.

“You absolutely have to capitalize on the architecture,” Coleman said.

c.bessette@theday.com

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