Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Listen to the Money Talk

Bob Dylan offered decades ago that money doesn't talk, it swears. That probably explains the silence across most of downtown Norwich for the last generation or more. All the talk about architectural diversity and a construction heritage that stretches back, in some instances, over a century and half, can't obscure the fact that downtown is on life support.

I wandered across it for an hour and half Saturday and, aside from the people working to accomplish cosmetic adjustments at the next new eatery, the Kong Foo Vegetarian Restaurant, there was no one else on the sidewalks from City Hall through the Wauregan up Main Street and over to Church Street.

Tearing it down will do nothing and costs more than it will ever net. As for abandoning it in place, good news! It looks like that we've already done that. And that's the crux of the problem, the lack of feet in the street sharing a coffee, grabbing a bite, visiting a boutique, getting hair or nails done, the hundreds of projects real people do when they live in real cities. If we could just move our downtown and harbor to where the people are. Or maybe, we should admit we need to try to make this work another way.

The three bonds on the November ballot are targeted for three areas of development and expansion in Norwich-I'll write today about the 3.38 million dollars for downtown. For some Norwich No-It-Alls, their minds are made up and they not only know it all, they know it all better. That's fine; here are the facts as I understand them. You decide.

Let's start with the 1.8 million dollars for partnerships with property owners to subsidize building code improvements creating usable spaces on upper floors of currently partially or totally empty and/or non-compliant buildings. We're talking fire/ life/safety and Americans with Disabilities code compliance not facade or edifice improvements.

70% of that money will be used to attract manufacturers, fabricators, professionals, Green industries and bio-tech and bio-Pharma (we already have the infrastructure in terms of utilities and communications) into downtown spaces, stretching across the Chelsea Central Zoning District and will include Hollyhock Island.

The other 30% will be targeted for those in retail as well as service industries and for enhancing residential development. People living in downtown on the upper floors above the shops and stores-as they did when your grandparents speak about the 'good old days' of Norwich. Not talk-but action.

Attracting business professionals is one challenge-retaining them is another and for that, a million dollars will be be in a revolving loan fund to be professionally managed by SeCTer, the regional economic development agency with a proven track record in loan management.

The loan program is a hand-up for businesses, beginners or those already in downtown, who might be less than attractive candidates for conventional loans-it is not a handout. All applicants must address the feasibility of their business plan, viability of the financing plan, their bankability and the number of jobs they will create or add. SeCTer, the program manager, will report to the City at least twice a year on the number of new businesses, growth of participating businesses and the increase in the Grand List.

That increase in the Grand List is important to all of us, no matter where you live in Norwich, because the continuing failure to grow the grand list in downtown is why everyone's property taxes just keep going up. It takes X dollars to pay for municipal goods and services-if there's no money in downtown, those dollars have to come from someplace else and you already know what that means.

In addition to the loan program, will be a lease subsidy or rebate. The rebate, alone, or as part of a larger package, provides businesses an incentive to act sooner rather than later in coming to downtown. Why a rebate at all? Norwich’s downtown lags in comparison to other areas across the state in terms of both the percent of occupancy with appropriate uses and in absolute levels of use, the total amount of usable space. The rebates improve commercial leases by up to $5.00 per Square foot and run, on a decreasing basis, for up to 5 years.

How many businesses have we seen open up in downtown and then falter and fail as lack of foot traffic and the cost of rents and rates makes staying in business too hard for too many. We've spent decades seeking a simple solution to a complex and complicated problem because we prefer problems that are familiar to solutions that are not.

Next Wednesday, let's discuss the Stanley Israelite Business Park. Until then, take a look for yourself at downtown, and the bond proposal, and tell me why this isn't the right time or the right plan.
-bill kenny

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