Consultant to Groton: Turn dated strip malls into walkable, mixed-use developments

Editor's note: This corrects the date of release of the draft report.

Groton — Groton should turn its dated strip malls into mixed-use, walkable developments that combine retail and living space and improve its “quality of place” to attract employers, according to the draft version of a market analysis released Monday. 

Nearly 80 percent of Groton’s workforce commutes from outside town and doesn't support local businesses, said the report by New York-based consultant Camoin Associates

“Said in another manner, the significant majority of Groton’s work force chooses to live somewhere else in the region,” the report said, adding that this is a missed opportunity because employees, for the most part, don't spend time in town, patronize local businesses or consider Groton a place to live.

While Groton is strong in tourism, visitors are also generally isolated from the rest of town and vice versa, the draft report said.

"Specifically, businesses in Mystic primarily cater to visitors yet many locals rarely visit the village. Most residents do their shopping in the aging, strip-style retail along Route 1, which is considered downtown Groton," the report said.

The market analysis was part of an initiative begun by the prior Town Council last year to examine where Groton fits into the regional market, and boost the local economy.

For years, Groton didn't worry much about economic development because it relied on its three major employers: Electric Boat, Pfizer Inc., and the Naval Submarine Base. 

But the town has had economic losses during the last three years: Mike's Famous Harley-Davidson moved from Gold Star Highway in Groton to Bank Street in New London; Charter Oak Federal Credit Union opened a new, multi-million-dollar headquarters in Waterford and turned the former Groton headquarters into a branch; and Pfizer tore down its former research headquarters on Eastern Point Road.

Although businesses have reported positive developments since then, losses hurt.

The draft report compares Groton to the region, state and nation in population, age distribution, income, poverty, education level, racial and ethnic diversity. It also examines large industries and regional job sectors.

The draft will be expanded in the coming weeks to recommend an action plan for future economic development.

“If Groton is going to compete in the modern economy, where entrepreneurs and small to mid-sized businesses are leading growth and innovation, it will need to prioritize improving its quality of place,” the report said. “Today, talented workers are attracted to places with a high quality of life and businesses know they need to be located in communities with the amenities and characteristics demanded by these workers.”

The town would benefit from encouraging new, modern retail that targets both residents and visitors and from improving recreation, culture, transportation, niche retail and opportunities in housing and education.

Without action, Groton’s retail market share will continue to slip, the report said.

“Simply put: Groton’s retail appears tired and in need of a refresh,” the report said.

Downtown Groton, described as "dated strip malls that are isolated from residential, office, civic, recreational and other land uses,” could be made more attractive to customers and potential tenants by integrating other uses and improving pedestrian and bicycle access.

Groton could make senior residences part of new mixed-use projects, as empty nesters seek alternatives to single-family homes and opt for apartment-style living. 

The aging population is also driving the demand for health care services and medical offices, the report said.

Residents from the ages of 25 to 34 make up more than one-third of Groton's population, the report noted, and they are beginning to earn significant income.

Yet many can’t afford or don't desire a single-family home, the report said. Instead, they're looking for apartments or condominiums with easy access to restaurants, retail and other amenities, the report said.

Potential developments could include upscale apartments and condos targeted to seniors; modern, market rate apartments for students and young professionals designed to accommodate an active lifestyle; small scale, niche retail; and medical offices.

Public-private partnerships will be key for projects to succeed, and the town should consider using tax increment financing and other tools to encourage private-sector development, the report said.

d.straszheim@theday.com

Twitter: @DStraszheim 

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