Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Misdirection Is also a Direction

Suspect our small town, city as we like to call ourselves, Norwich, Connecticut, isn't all that different from where you call home. We have lots of people who work very hard to just get by-nothing fancy, and maybe kind of plain, but honest effort where it's a long, full day's work for a paycheck.

Norwich has been, despite constant albeit fitful effort to the contrary, in a downward glide pattern since some point in the fifties when the early malls built on cheap land that straddled new state roads near the the city limits lured the first generation of auto-Americans who had previously crowded our downtown shopping district.

Affordable cars, easy credit to buy them, new highways to take us where we wanted to go and cheap gas to fuel our getaways spelled the end of family businesses across America as well as in downtown Norwich and the then-Industrial (now Business) Park lured small manufacturers in much the same way as the Norwichtown and, later Crystal, Mall attracted retailers.

New England textile manufacturers traded a high-priced skilled labor force toiling in cathedral-like factories on the banks of the region's three rivers for cheap non-unionized employees in 'right to work' states in the Deep South a generation before 'off-shore' moved those jobs even farther away across the wide ocean to satisfy stock-holder's demands for return on investment.

The work force who built the submarines that helped win World War Two and would be a critical component in deciding the Cold War, grew old and moved to warmer climes, leaving their jobs as a sort of family inheritance to their children even as the government chose to reduce the overhead national defense seems to become in peacetime.

Precision welding and ship-designing skill sets, prized and well-compensated for generations, were allowed to wither and fade as the submarine force drastically shrank in size and the service jobs required by the two casinos that replaced them had much lower rates of compensation.

Almost without realizing it, we became poorer as more of us worked for less money and lowered benefits. It's much easier, in hindsight, to see the flatlining of the grand list and the near-zero growth rate in the commercial sector as the Seventies became the Eighties than to have foreseen it when it started and when a concerted and coordinated effort to reverse the decline and decay in downtown Norwich would have needed to begin.

As other towns across the region and throughout the state learned to adapt and overcome, in Norwich we spoke of our history, admired our inventory of architecture and boasted of our potential. We formed advisories and committees by the score, each with the task to 'stimulate economic development,' without ever defining or agreeing upon what this would look like and how it would be implemented. Too late we realized when you don't know where you're going any road will get you there.

Thirteen months ago, the Mayor and the City Council didn't so much invite as direct the leaders of those panels of volunteers most closely associated with downtown economic development to work together (or else, I suspect) to create a common vision of what Norwich Next was to look like.

Last November in what may prove to be the final leap of faith Norwich residents are willing to make, voters adopted as their own a framework for a not yet fully developed plan that would define desirable economic activity, help create the conditions to foster it, and support and enhance the infrastructure to monitor and measure progress, creating real wealth reflected in an increase in both the city's grand list as well as in the take-home pay of its citizens.

The last of the public hearings on that plan was Monday morning, even as the headlines in the newspaper were filled with reports and comments on the City Council's Monday night meeting and the public hearing that wasn't on the possible creation of a community center by purchasing the downtown YMCA.

We love brave beginnings here in The Rose of New England and it looks like we're about to have another one-even though we've not to bring to a conclusion, much less a happy ending to the first phase of a promising plan to arrest and then reverse the decay and death of our downtown. We need to accept that when we buy a ticket, we get the whole ride.
-bill kenny

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