New London ― Two months after a section of the city was designated as a cultural district, the city’s Cultural District Commission is ready to launch projects.
Improving downtown functionality for events, installing more artwork by local artists, and expanding the city’s Black Heritage Trail are just a few of the things the commission is working on.
The seven-member commission was assembled last year, but first had to work to be designated by the state as a cultural district, having done so in June. The designation allows New London to use state tourism website resources to promote its destinations and events.
New London has one of three state-recognized cultural districts. The district area is encompassed within a few city blocks bounded by State, Bank, and Howard streets.
Rich Martin, owner of The Telegraph Record Shop, chairs the volunteer commission. The other members are Sean Patrick Murray, director of The Social and The Oasis; Jeanne Sigel, director of development at the Center des Arts de la Garde; La Chale Gillis, local photographer; Lydia Blaisdell Brunner, playwright; Melissa Ford, community member who has served on previous city commissions; and Andrew Camacho, hip-hop artist and founder of the nonprofit ArtFlame Music Academy.
“It’s a really interesting mix of people and represents the diversity of the city,” Martin said.
Martin added that the city’s identity through arts and culture has not always been recognized. The cultural district designation puts these qualities at the top of the list.
“The arts are tourism, creating spaces to return to,” Martin said. “Tourism spending in the state has not always been focused on New London. … The promise of cultural district designation is a new state commitment.
Martin said the commission received $250,000 in COVID-19 relief funds from the American Rescue Plan Act, on behalf of the city, to invest in the district.
Some of that money was used to hire a part-time cultural district coordinator, Kaitlin Whitehorn, in May to “dot the i’s and t’s” of the commission’s events and assets.
Using COVID-19 relief funds, the commission created an Events Program Grant to help support events in the district that could use additional funds. Most recently, the commission supported two events for the Connecticut Maritime Heritage Festival from September 9-11: The Return of the Burning of Benedict Arnold festival at the Flock Theater and the Arm-of-the-Sea Theater puppet show at Hygienic Park.
The commission met with Mystic-based Kent + Frost Landscape Architecture last week to brainstorm ideas for improving wayfinding and infrastructure in the designated neighborhood for future events. Martin said the commission is working with the city to get Big Belly waste recycling bins into the district and once those arrive in the fall, local artists will be paid to paint them.
The commission will also invest funds in expanding the city’s Black Heritage Trail which was unveiled in October 2021 and offers a self-guided tour of 15 different historic sites around the city marked with bronze plaques.
Curtis Goodwin, who led the city’s bid to become a cultural district, is the trail’s project leader.
Goodwin said the project, which he called the New London Heritage Trail, is moving into the next phase, adding an indigenous trail with markers centered around the Pequots. He added that the commission and research team are working to make the trail self-narrated with QR codes to help people navigate the trail.
“We’re working on the momentum for next year,” Martin said.