New London - Trudging down lower State Street and hanging a right on Bank Street last week, Margaret Bodell crunches through snow past one empty storefront after another.
But what Bodell likes to focus on are the many attractive properties: Thames River Greenery, Muddy Waters Cafe, Waterhouse Salon, Studio 33 frame shop and the Flavours of Life fair-trade store, among others. These are the pillars, she said, upon which the city can build a downtown revival.
"You have the perfect elements here - it's such a creative community," said Bodell, director of the downtown initiative CreateHereNow, a $500,000 statewide effort by the state Department of Economic and Community Development to fill empty storefronts in 20 cities.
Bodell has spent the past few weeks working with Annah Perch, executive director of New London Main Street, to meet downtown building owners and encourage them to negotiate leases with artists and business people willing to take a chance on storefront locations - often involving three months of free rent, followed by a gradual step up to market rates.
Among people targeted for the program: designers of all stripes and artists attending Artists Academy @ Hygienic, a program that teaches the creative community how to develop business skills. Perch said she eventually would like to see a broad spectrum of people from New York to Boston take a chance on New London, but the six-month pilot phase, which centers on the waterfront district, targets creative people already working or living downtown.
New London Main Street's goal is to fill six storefronts in the pilot phase, with three of these businesses taking advantage of live-work arrangements.
"This is a hard thing to do," Bodell said. "You have to work at it every single day."
George Waterman, who owns several properties downtown, already has provided one of his properties - in the atrium of the Harris Place building on State Street - as headquarters for CreateHereNowNewLondon. Bodell will screen potential tenants and help them work on business plans that demonstrate a clear understanding of the challenges ahead.
The first information session about the program will be held at 5 p.m. Feb. 19 in the CreateHereNow office.
The DECD has spent the past few months launching CreateHereNow programs in 10 cities, including Bridgeport, Torrington, Waterbury and South Norwalk. The Bridgeport program, according to a DECD flier, led to seven new downtown businesses as well as a new business start-up initiative.
"All the projects are launching with an eye on sustainability," Bodell said.
Tammy Daugherty, the city's director of development and planning, heard about the program and enlisted New London Main Street's support in helping launch a storefront campaign here, Perch said. It was a perfect program for Main Street, which has been looking to add a focus on economic development to its previous niche of marketing and promotions.
"I think the potential is huge," Perch said.
Ned Hammond, the city's economic development coordinator, said no one regularly canvases downtown to determine how many storefronts are currently empty. But several businesses have closed or moved out in recent months, including the Greenlight and Pinc! boutiques, Stone Fleet Tavern restaurant, El 'n' Gee nightclub and Surprise Party Goods, not to mention Monica's State Street Diner, forced out by a fire at the Bacon Building.
Hammond said CreateHereNowNewLondon, funded with help from the city, Dime Bank and The Day, dovetails nicely with the city's so far unused live-work regulations that encourage people to inhabit the buildings where their businesses are located. It also could work in conjunction with the city's rent-subsidy program, which is running out of money this fiscal year but could provide some help for startups lacking capital, he said.
"We have quite a few empty storefronts," Hammond said.
City councilors attending an overview at City Hall Monday of CreateHereNow during a meeting of the city's Economic Development Committee said they were excited about the program's potential.
"Anything that's going to bring people to the city ... I love the idea," said Councilor Efrain Dominguez Jr. "Little by little, it's going to turn around."
Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio, who didn't attend Monday's meeting, also has indicated his support.
Councilor Martin Olsen said he had several concerns, including the difficulty in new businesses gaining bank funding and the lack of downtown business activity in recent years.
"If they don't get that traffic out of the gate, they are going to be done quick," he said.
Perch said the idea is to focus efforts within a few blocks and to make sure even the unoccupied storefronts look attractive by engaging the community and landlords in efforts to wrap the buildings with interesting designs, similar to what artist Lynda Wesley McLaughlin did to the exterior of the Capitol Theater. It's up to the business owners, she said in a separate interview, to "react to who is on the street."
Andrew Clyde Bell, a New London-based photographer and videographer who attended Monday's meeting, said he would be interested in being a CreateHereNow pioneer if he could find a studio space with high ceilings where he could display pictures in the window.
But Bell had some hesitation, too.
"The challenge is to find the right enterprises to fill the spaces," he said. "The other challenge is getting people to come."
Bodell, who oversaw a successful program in New Haven five years ago that she said currently maintains 100 percent occupancy, acknowledged the difficulties and said driving foot traffic is a key goal of the storefront initiative.
"There seems to be such a supportive group down here," she said. "I think we are going to have a high level of success."