NEW LONDON — The atmosphere at the “Dare to Believe” forum Wednesday night was one of optimism as city leaders spread a confident message about New London’s progress and prosperous future.
“‘Dare to Believe.’ We came up with that concept because sometimes when you’re from here, when you see New London every single day, you kind of have tunnel vision and just don’t see what’s happening, unfolding in front of you,” the city’s director of economic development, Felix Reyes, told an audience of about 125 people who came to hear the panel speak at the Garde Arts Center.
Reyes spoke of the cranes at State Pier “creating the next generation infrastructure, hundreds of jobs,” and supplying a state-of-the-art heavy cargo lift facility for offshore wind projects along the Eastern Seaboard.
Change can be exciting for some people but scary for others, he said, and the goal of the city’s administration is to bring everyone to the table so the city can flourish.
“Work attracts people. People create houses, opportunities, and then our small businesses thrive. That’s what’s going on here in New London,” he said.
He also acknowledged that New London has had many false starts over the years.
“I think there’s been a lot of disappointment in the past generations on trying to get things moving forward, and everyone gets excited. You always hear this word ‘potential, potential, potential.’ We’re past that. Those days are over with. We’re well ahead of potential. It’s unfolding in real time,” he said.
With drone footage of the city shown on a screen above his head, Reyes spoke of the city’s landmarks and institutions: Connecticut College, the Lyman Allyn Museum, the Arboretum, the Coast Guard Academy, Mitchell College and others. He talked about numerous small businesses, festivals, beaches and the 50,000-square-foot community recreation center slated for the Fort Trumbull neighborhood.
He showed futuristic renderings of what the city could look like and talked about the promise of major projects.
“The National Coast Guard Museum, how long have you been waiting and hearing about it coming? Well guess what? It’s started and it’s coming. Be prepared. Because in a few years, this is what downtown is gonna look like. We’re talking a national treasure,” he said.
Telling the city’s story through his family, Reyes said his father arrived in New London in 1978 to train as a welder at Electric Boat through the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act under President Jimmy Carter. Reyes said his mother followed in 1980 and the two bought a house on Elm Street in 1985, where they still reside.
“They chose New London because it was a place they could call their own, and this is why it’s personal for me to be up here because New London has given so much to my family,” he said. “I’m a product of the city so every decision that I make, everything that I do, I’m always thinking about that little boy who grew up here.”
Reyes talked about the city’s projected growth of 18 percent by 2040 and put emphasis on housing needs that include the construction of more rentals, as well as programs that help first-time homebuyers with down payment assistance.
He said the increase in rentals would balance the city’s housing stock.
After the event, Reyes told CT Examiner that 23 percent of New London’s housing stock is subsidized and the state Department of Housing is working to provide more apartments that qualify for Section 8 vouchers and are under 50 percent of the area median income.
“The other 75 percent is struggling because middle market housing is being gobbled up by people who can afford more, but we don’t have the inventory,” he said. “New apartments are addressing those who make more, those who are ready to afford more. Those on the lower market have nothing to move up to … that’s freeing up the middle market, that’s the balance we need.”
Also speaking from the stage Wednesday night was Mayor Michael Passero, who said the city has turned a corner.
“Private developers are investing here because they realized they can get a return on their investment. That wasn’t the case for many, many years, as investment in our city was sluggish or nonexistent. While my belief in New London is rooted in the passion of a New London kid, theirs is rooted in research and statistics. Finally we got the formula right. ‘Daring to Believe’ has attracted investment,” he said. “A city needs both to work – passion and investment.”
Passero said the investments are across housing, small business, historic renovations, commercial properties and infrastructure.
He also acknowledged the challenges of being the social services hub for the region and said the city was committed “to ensuring that our growing prosperity does not leave anyone behind.”
“Much work remains as we improve our aging housing stock and confront the owners of blighted properties that devalue our neighborhoods and impede the rebirth of our downtown,” he said. “We have investors who believe in the city, but they’re being put off by absentee owners who would rather mothball an empty building than contribute to the renaissance of the city. Yet I ‘Dare to Believe’ that these opportunities will be fulfilled as well.”
The panel also included Seila Mosquera-Bruno, commissioner of the state Department of Housing; and Elizabeth Nocera, economic development coordinator for New London.
Gov. Ned Lamont and U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., made appearances by video, as well as a number of area residents who reflected on New London’s past and future.