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Dine downtown in a monument to whaling wealth?

One constant reminder for me of the sad state of affairs in downtown New London, with its ever creeping blight, is the now vacant Savings Bank of New London building on Eugene O'Neill Drive, once Main Street, a reminder of how far the city has fallen over the years.

Built in 1870, added on to in 1890 and tarted up with a new classical facade in 1905, the bank is a relic from the days when New London was the rich cultural and economic capital of the region, one more architectural treasure in a city made wealthy by 19th century whaling.

The fact that it has sat empty the last year, no one enjoying its grand gilded and marble lobby, is another symbol to me of the development malaise gripping downtown.

The bank building, which includes an attached modern office building, most recently was leased by Citizens Bank. The empty complex, situated on close to a half-acre, is now on the market with an asking price of $4.5 million. It also is available for lease.

I have a fantasy that one of New London's great whaling banks, a leftover from the city's heyday, could become part of its 21st century renaissance, a cultural if not an economic hub for the downtown.

It's actually not a very original idea. Google "banks made into restaurants" and you'll see all kinds of interesting ways these beautiful old buildings, all around the country, have been adapted to modern use while retaining their historical grandeur.

After all, in this age of banking apps and digital money, it's not like anyone is going to put tellers again behind all those marble counters.

A restaurant in the old Savings Bank of New London could be just a start for reusing the beautiful space, which also might work as a music and meeting venue for all kinds of lectures, performances and community gatherings.

The good news is that the building is in excellent condition. Flip on the lights, open some folding chairs and strike up the band. Really, it wouldn't take much to convert the place, even temporarily, for some clever reuse.

In my fantasy, some prominent nonprofits that care about the city's future could help make this happen. Could it be a short-term pop-up venue for performances organized by the Garde Arts Center or lectures by New London Landmarks?

I doubt a conversion to a restaurant would be all that complicated, beyond, of course, installing a professional kitchen.

If one single restaurant tenant can't be found, how about a consortium of New London or regional restaurants, taking turns running what I am convinced would be a very popular destination, an interesting downtown anchor.

It would behoove the owner, it seems to me, to consider some version of this idea, since it wouldn't cost very much and could certainly help sell or lease the rest of the place. It would make those offices a lot more appealing if there were a stunning performance or restaurant space downstairs.

Anyway, this is one of my downtown fantasies, one I occasionally indulge when I can no longer tolerate all those big, old, beautiful, empty buildings, the sadness of so much missed opportunity.

I remain confident that New London, which still has the magnificent bones of a rich whaling capital, has this next big second act in its future, a proud capital again of eastern Connecticut. I do feel the confidence slipping, though.

Downtown's full potential, it seems, is always, painfully, just out of reach.

This is the opinion of David Collins.


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