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'We are on the map': New London named state's third Cultural District

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New London — In the midst of Make Music Day, state and local officials announced a section of New London would be Connecticut’s third Cultural District.

New London city councilors; Garde Arts Center Director of Community and Youth Engagement Curtis Goodwin; Mayor Michael Passero; state Rep. Anthony Nolan, D-New London; Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz and others spoke Tuesday afternoon at a ceremony at the Whale’s Tail Fountain on Parade Plaza downtown. About 75 people were in attendance, many sitting on the surrounding steps or standing at the top and cheering throughout for the recognition of New London’s artistic, culinary and general cultural assets.

The designation allows the city to use resources from the state's tourism website to promote its destinations and events.

“We are New London, and we are on the map,” Nolan said Tuesday. “New London is growing, and we’re not going to stop. We’re going to climb higher on the ladder, we’re going to show the rest of the communities in Connecticut how it’s done. People are going to follow us.”

Cultural Districts are defined by the state as walkable areas of a city or town with many cultural establishments. “These vibrant areas draw visitors from other towns and states and serve as a hub for residents to congregate and interact,” a news release from the lieutenant governor’s office reads.

The specific Cultural District area is encompassed within a few blocks bounded by State, Bank and Howard Streets.

“Establishing New London as an official Cultural District will allow this city to be a hub of the arts and to showcase area history and culture,” Bysiewicz said Tuesday. “The Governor and I are thrilled at this designation because with all the other great things that are going on in New London, the building of the New London pier, the great things that are happening like the building of the community center ... All you have to do is look at some of the construction that’s going on with housing. New London is going to be a hub for arts, for culture, for tourism, it’s going to be a hub of job creation.”

Bysiewicz and other speakers pointed out some of the city’s events and restaurants, as well as its cultural institutions, including the Garde Arts Center, Custom House Maritime Museum, Hygienic Art, the Black Heritage Trail and other establishments and features that define the city’s cultural offerings.

The Cultural District designation “promotes and encourages artists, entrepreneurs and creative businesses,” promotes tourism, improves residents’ quality of life, strengthens “distinctive character of communities,” expands the tax base and drives economic growth and highlights local culture and history, according to the state Department of Economic and Community Development

A bill passed in the state legislature in 2019 established Cultural Districts. The state DECD, Office of Arts, Office of Tourism and Designated Regional Service Organizations “are committed to supporting the formation, development and establishment of Cultural Districts." All of these organizations promote the Cultural Districts through the state’s tourism efforts. The other two designated Cultural Districts are in Ridgefield and Torrington.

Obtaining the designation required a lengthy application process.

“The application process was pretty cumbersome. You have to have your maps, your maps have to be drawn to a T, that includes your designated area for the Cultural District,” Goodwin said. “You have to have your commissioners ... the commissioners have to be specific, whether they own a restaurant, they come from business, they come from art, they live in the district, they obviously have to live in New London.”

“We are not our friends across the river, or down the highway, we are New London proud and our unique attributes when embraced, celebrated and funded properly, they will be the engine that results in vibrancy, a more walkable city and sustainability,” added Goodwin, who spearheaded the city’s bid to become a Cultural District.

Rich Martin, who is the chair of New London’s Cultural District Commission, has a long history in the city’s music scene, playing in several of the area’s seminal bands. He owns Telegraph Records Shop at 19 Golden St. He reflected on his time in New London and on what the Cultural District designation means for the city.

“The city has taken some blows over the years, including the so-called urban renewal era, which stripped downtown of historic buildings and neighborhoods, the expansion of the interstate, which left a multi-lane highway driving into our town and dividing us in half, mall culture, which replaced our city center with more modern options in the suburbs, and most recently, lopsided investment in marketing that branded our region and seemed to leave New London out of the mix,” Martin said Tuesday. “Through all of this, our city remained resilient and often found ways to renew itself. That renewal often came through the arts and culture of this place.”

“The establishment of this New London Cultural District gives us a new vehicle to champion those energies and highlight the many artistic, cultural and historic assets that our city possesses ... as we embrace the new era ahead,” Martin continued. “That new era will see Connecticut College students living downtown, more and more workers from Electric Boat settling here with their families, and the construction and opening of a world-class museum immediately behind us celebrating the long and storied history of the Coast Guard here in its home court.”

Elizabeth Shapiro of the DECD emphasized the importance of the Cultural District designation in that it creates a connection between government agencies in Hartford and the creative community in New London.

“The power of this cultural district is the power of relationships ... and now you guys in the city of New London know people in the city of Hartford who can make things happen,” Shapiro said. “Now we have the power of personal relationships, and I’m sorry, that’s how things get done.”

s.spinella@theday.com

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