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New London looks to attract new businesses, fill some storefronts

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New London — The city is looking to attract new businesses, entrepreneurs and vendors to the city with a pop-up shop program that might just help fill up some of the downtown’s empty storefronts.

City economic development officials are in talks with downtown business owners about the possibility of providing short-term leases at below-market rates for new businesses that might not otherwise take the leap during the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Catherine Foley, a downtown building owner and member of the City Center District, said the pop-up shop idea works in other urban areas: more tenants and vendors create foot traffic and generate interest in existing businesses.

“If it is successful as hoped, perhaps it provides a long-term opportunity for a tenant,” Foley said. “You need that concentration of businesses.”

Felix Reyes, director of the city’s Office of Development and Planning, said the city can act as an agent for new businesses interested in locating downtown and even help provide rent assistance, making it a low-risk move for a new business or vendor.

The initiative is in the early stages of formation, but Reyes said the owners of RD86 Space at 86 Golden St. and the Garde Arts Center cottage at 345 State St. already have expressed interest.

The COVID-19 pandemic has stymied new ventures because “the risk is higher, borrowing is harder,” Reyes said. Further evidence of the pandemic’s impact is the fact some existing businesses have yet to reopen.

The city is creating an application process for the initiative with requirements for new businesses that they provide insurance and minimum hours of operation, among other things. The city, as it does with any new business, will provide information and help expedite things like zoning approvals and permitting.

Economic Development Coordinator Elizabeth Nocera said the pop-up shop initiative also could be a way to accommodate smaller vendors, craftsmen and artisans hit hard by the lack of events such as Sailfest or suffering because of an overall lack of foot traffic in places like a mall.

She envisions a series of downtown events to provide a platform for the vendors but said social distancing requirements make for more complicated planning. “We’re still working on ways to do this,” she said. “It’s a challenge.”

Reyes said while grant funding does not appear to be immediately available for the project, the city does have some money earmarked for economic development that could be used.

A similar program, called CreateHereNow, was tried out in the city in 2014 with the help of funding provided by the state’s Department of Economic and Community Development. Some businesses stayed for a trial period and others, such as The Eyeglass Lass, Bike New London and Hive Skate Shop, were successful but eventually moved out of downtown.

For more information, contact Nocera at (860) 437-6309 or enocera@newlondonct.org.

g.smith@theday.com

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