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    Tuesday, February 27, 2024

    In New London, a problem with no easy solution

    The departure this fall of Hot Rod Cafe, a longtime Bank Street restaurant owned by a businessman who, along with his father before him, is a New London institution of sorts, has increased the volume of complaints by those who shun the city’s downtown. They stay away, they say, because downtown New London isn’t safe and a lack of police presence there is also discouraging new businesses from locating there and causing others to fail.

    New London’s downtown challenges are in actuality more complex than many problems the public deals with via social media that are simple and have easy solutions. First, those who firmly believe that a few cops walking beats on Bank and State streets will bring businesses flooding back downtown should first take a look at other downtown business districts throughout the state and New England.

    Locally, even the incredibly deep pockets and generous investments of Charles “Chuck” Royce could not keep the beloved Savoy Bookshop open in downtown Westerly, for example. Downtown business districts in Norwich, New Britain, Willimantic and Hartford have plenty of empty storefronts and struggle to lure and maintain businesses.

    Further afield from Connecticut, in Burlington, Vermont, the Church Street business district that was long hailed as a shining example of a robust downtown makeover is now hemorrhaging businesses. And sure, downtown Mystic may often be packed with tourists, but restaurants there still come and go with fairly brisk frequency and many locals who consistently complain about a lack of parking there would likely relate to the old Yogi Berra-ism: “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

    New London Mayor Michael Passero said the city has been trying its best to bolster its police force and if those efforts were more successful, downtown walking patrols might be possible. But the tarnished reputation of police work in recent years has made recruiting and retaining officers a challenge, at best. Passero said the city only recently had one recruit drop out of the police academy after deciding the career was not to their liking and lost another officer to another department.

    In addition, data shows that police are more necessary in neighborhoods away from the downtown business district. Statistics from the past four years that were recently released by Police Chief Brian M. Wright show crime is not skyrocketing in the business district. While the number of assaults is up slightly from seven in 2022 to 12 in 2023, the number of fight/disturbance calls declined from 96 in 2022 to 78 in 2023, for example.

    More seriously, one person was wounded in a shooting near Bank and Tilley streets in August and two cars were hit by gunfire near Bank and Golden streets in early December. Passero said both incidents occurred long after restaurants are closed, meaning casual visitors were not in jeopardy.

    Probably more relevant is the fact that no place is immune from gun violence. We only recently marked the anniversary of the horrific killings of 20 first-graders and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in the small and quiet town of Newtown, for example.

    While it is sad to see any longtime business close, there are many positives in downtown New London that counter-balance the shuttering of a single restaurant.

    Tony Sheridan, president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut, said the chamber’s board was eager to commit to and support New London with the chamber’s recent move downtown. When its headquarters and Regional Innovation Center officially opened at 92 Eugene O’Neill Drive in October, some 300 guests showed up to help celebrate, he said. Now, chamber staff are enjoying strolling downtown, eating lunch at local restaurants and enjoying Thames River views at City Pier.

    Looking beyond the new chamber offices, the New London business district also has many other positives. Ticket sales for Garde Arts Center performances are climbing to pre-pandemic levels. Improved lighting has helped pedestrians. Connecticut College students are living in a State Street building. More downtown apartments are being occupied. Downtown lamp posts and Parade Plaza are awash in colorful flowers in the spring and summer and currently are festooned with holiday decorations. Special events such as the recent Christmas tree lighting and arrival of Santa Claus attract crowds. And soon there will be a series of so-called “blue light” safety kiosks installed to further bolster safety, along with the addition of the National U.S. Coast Guard Museum to serve as a major tourist attraction.

    The addition of police foot patrols downtown, whenever it’s feasible to happen, would no doubt further enhance the public image of the downtown business district. But returning crowds to downtown New London — as it is in just about any downtown business district in Connecticut — will require much more than cops walking beats.

    The Day editorial board meets with political, business and community leaders to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Timothy Dwyer, Executive Editor Izaskun E. Larraneta, Owen Poole, copy editor, and Lisa McGinley, retired deputy managing editor. The board operates independently from The Day newsroom.

    Comment threads are monitored for 48 hours after publication and then closed.