Community Concierge program acts as '21st-century Welcome Wagon'
Matt Jones was on a scavenger hunt through New London earlier this month, learning trivia about what a building was made of (concrete) and how many tattoo parlors are on Bank Street (three).
The following night, he was at Pink Basil at Olde Mistick Village in Mystic, pressing rice into seaweed and adding cucumber, crab stick, avocado, salmon and tuna to make his own rainbow roll.
Jones found out about the events, which are part of the Community Concierge program the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut runs, through North American Young Generation in Nuclear, a young professionals organization.
Jones, 24, moved from the Midwest to New London a month ago to work at Millstone, and he's looking to get the lay of the land.
"You don't become part of the community by hanging out in your apartment," he said.
The sushi-making class on May 17 was the latest in a series of more than a dozen events that were part of the Community Concierge program, meant as "a comprehensive tool for new arrivals to become acquainted with life in eastern CT" — a crucial goal as Electric Boat amps up hiring.
Also at the class were Norwich residents Sean and Katrina Neufeld, who moved to the area three years ago because Sean was in the Navy. Katrina said they heard about the event through Facebook but noted the couple is "really bad about finding stuff to do."
Then there was Coral Crandall, a Grasso Tech secretary who came to the event with her hairdresser, Amber Scheetz, and her hairdresser's 15-year-old son, Anthony Roman. Crandall also heard about the event through Facebook.
"It's great," Scheetz said. "You get to know new people, and just enjoy the night, and learn how to make what you enjoy to eat."
A 21st-century welcome wagon
Community Concierge is one of the programs through Thames River Innovation Place, a combination of programs that are collectively receiving $900,000 in matching grant funds through the entrepreneur-boosting organization CTNext.
Community Concierge alone has received $90,000. The Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut introduced the program last August and held the first event — a meet-and-greet at the Thames Club in New London, followed by a behind-the-scenes tour of the Garde Arts Center — in October.
The program allows people to sign up as a "newcomer" or a "local connector" on its website, bit.ly/SECTCC. As of Tuesday, there are 54 registered newcomers and 55 connectors, according to chamber Vice President Amanda Ljubicic.
Events are categorized as either a Connections Event, an exclusive event for newcomers and connectors, or a Let's Go Local event, open to anyone. The next activity is a connections event at the Florence Griswold Museum on Wednesday, June 13.
A free connections event on Dec. 12 at Hard Rock Café in Foxwoods Resort Casino drew more than 100 people, thanks to an email sent to Electric Boat employees. Events that aren't free have ranged from $7 to $25 each. A connections event at MBAR on March 27 hit capacity with 80 registrations.
Alexis Kahn, a business banking officer at Chelsea Groton Bank, moved from New York City to North Stonington with her husband in August, so her husband could take over the family business in Rhode Island upon his parents' retirement.
Kahn, 33, heard about Community Concierge from Sam Eisenbeiser, economic development specialist with the Town of Groton. Kahn said she met Eisenbeiser at an event held at a Chelsea Groton Bank branch.
While work is keeping Kahn busy, she is "certainly planning on participating" in more Community Concierge events in the future.
The program has billed itself as "the region's 21st-century 'Welcome Wagon,'" and that may resonate more with Jane Loeser Clukay, who signed up as a connector, than anyone else.
Clukay recalls that when she was growing up in Waterford in the 1950s and '60s, her mother was part of the Welcome Wagon that would greet newcomers and offer discounts to local businesses.
Clukay moved to western Massachusetts for work in 1983, but she visited family and friends in southeastern Connecticut often, and she moved back to the area in 2016.
Her role as a connector has involved helping out at events like a mixer at the Hard Rock Café and a hot yoga class at Hot on Bank in New London.
She lives on Thames Street, and when Electric Boat employees walk by on their way to work while she's outside gardening, she tells them about Community Concierge.
"There are so many young people here with EB, who are lonely, to be honest, who are looking for those kinds of social connections," said Kate Wargo, a Connecticut College employee. She attended a Nov. 20 brewery tour and beer tasting event at Outer Light Brewing but has not attended other Community Concierge events since.
Chamber looks to grow program
"Community Concierge was really conceived to meet the needs of employers who are trying to attract and retain talent in this region," said Ljubicic, who joined the Chamber of Commerce in February after working at Mitchell College for a decade.
She noted that while there is extra attention on millennials, it's certainly not the only audience.
As seniors, a newly commissioned group of Coast Guard ensigns — Michelle Hernandez, Peter Bied, Kenneth Mouleka and Timothy Varley — aided the chamber by collecting survey and focus group data on the needs of newcomers.
A "robust social events schedule" will continue to be a goal as Community Concierge enters its second year, Ljubicic said, but there are new projects.
The chamber is developing a three-minute video that Ljubicic called a "sales pitch for the region," something an employer could use as a recruiting tool. She said the chamber is scripting the video and hopes to have shooting done by the end of August.
The chamber also is working on a digital relocation guide that "includes everything from housing, pets, churches, hospitals, night life," Ljubicic said. It mainly will be a digital resource but 5,000 copies will go to print in the next couple of weeks.
The chamber also hopes to offer a business discount card, for which people can pay a nominal fee — maybe $25 — for a card that can get them 10 percent off at participating local businesses. Ljubicic also wants to see more information about events coming directly through employers.
"The task for year two is to become intentional about how we package the program," she said, adding, "Ideally we would want to see that a new recruit who's engaged at Community Concierge is engaged at a higher rate."
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