New London, Groton groups showcase innovative spirit, hope for state grant

New London — The cliché “putting the cart before the horse” often is used as a criticism for putting steps in the wrong order to achieve a goal, but leaders of the effort to get the New London-Groton area designated by the state as an Innovation Place plan to prove the point with or without the state’s stamp.

Two dozen people participated in the first Innovation Boost workshop Saturday at the Harris Place Visual Art Library Conference Room in advance of an application to the state for a share of a $5 million grant for Innovation Places.

With guidance from consultants Ben Haggard and Bill Reed, principals in the Santa Fe-based Regenesis Group, participants worked on projects and themes to help welcome new employees to the New London-Groton area, support small businesses with training and start-up services and create urban “edible landscapes” of community gardens and orchards.

The grant application will be submitted April 1, but when participants broke into four groups to work on their specific projects Saturday, they talked about “when” their plans would be implemented, not “if” they can get state backing.

Fresh New London has partnered with Connecticut College professor Andrea Wollensak’s Design: Public Practice class to create one edible landscape at the McDonald Park at the corner of McDonald Street and Connecticut Avenue in New London. Volunteers already have spoken with 121 residents in a neighborhood effort to create the community garden, featuring raised beds, composting, rainwater collection system, solar lighting and a playground.

Fresh New London is seeking sponsorships and donations through its website, freshnewlondon.org, and residents will gather Feb. 16 to vote on the final design for the project.

“If all goes well, we’ll start building something this spring,” Fresh Director Alicia McAvay said.

Broadening that effort to the greater Groton-New London Thames River Innovation Place, Wollensak said her class will work with Fresh New London to identify other urban sites for possible community gardens and orchards. Each space would have different features and be managed differently, they said.

“There’s lots of possibilities in Groton,” McAvay said.

At the adjacent table, recent and long-term local residents pondered how the region could best reach out to the expected thousands of new employees coming to work at Electric Boat, Lawrence + Memorial Hospital and other large local employers. Their concept, as outlined by the Regenesis consultants, is not only to welcome the newcomers, but engage them in the local community soon after their arrival so they feel a part of the community.

That way, they said, if employment fluctuations hit the region as they have in the past — with EB and casino cutbacks causing economic upheaval throughout the region — the relative newcomers would have strong stakes in the local economy, including opportunities for their own innovative entrepreneurship and businesses.

As an example, Haggard pointed to Rochester, N.Y.’s experience when giant anchor employer Kodak closed its plant. Rochester had promoted such a strong entrepreneurial community, that many of the laid off workers quickly adapted and developed new business plans. That region suffered no net loss of jobs, Haggard said, and the Kodak plant became the host of the entrepreneurial business hub.

Spark Makerspace already offers start-up services to members with tools and equipment for various trades. One of those facilities is a commercial incubator kitchen to help new food businesses. Hannah Gant, director of strategy and innovation at Spark, said one effort will be to try to find space for a large kitchen incubator that could allow food service startup businesses to work on their products.

For example, food truck operators could try new featured items offered for a short time before switching to something else. In the end, they might find one specialty item is a big hit. Spark has a commercial kitchen at 86 Golden St. that could serve as the start-up until a larger kitchen incubator space can be found, Gant said.

Gant and the Regenesis Group consultants said the pending application for the state Innovation Places already has provided the boost to efforts discussed at Saturday's four-hour workshop. But the work itself and the partnerships formed with leaders in New London, Groton Town and Groton City, should keep going even if the official designation doesn’t come.

“Even if you don’t get the money, New London is energized,” Reed said.

c.bessette@theday.com

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