MERIDEN — The Making Meriden Business Center on Colony Street will close next month following cuts by one of its funders, but could reopen soon.
CTNext, which provides a $75,000 grant to the Meriden Economic Development Corp. (MEDCO) to help operate the business support center, has suffered a cutback and will now only provide direct support to businesses, city Economic Development Director Joseph Feest told city officials two weeks ago. The funding, which expired June 30, impacted similar programs in Hartford and other cities.
“This is not a closure,” Feest told members of the City Council’s Economic Development Housing and Zoning Committee. “It’s a temporary hiatus. We’re going to reapply in September.”
The small storefront office at 5 Colony St. provides a concierge service to small businesses interested in locating or expanding downtown. MEDCO pays for the rent and the services of business specialist David Cooley. CTNext pays the salary for downtown fellow Lisa Biesek and for other support services. The city matched CTNext’s grant with a $71,000 allocation for MEDCO in 2020.
“David and Lisa have done an excellent job downtown,” Feest said. “They have put in a lot of time and effort to turn our downtown around. I’ve asked them to stay on a per diem basis.”
MEDCO President Tom Welsh said in a statement that stakeholders in the business center, which include the city and the Midstate Chamber of Commerce, “determined that it was best to phase out the day to day operations at its downtown office (which had been slow due to COVID restrictions anyway) a few months earlier than we had originally planned...” This ‘hiatus’ will preserve the City funding and focus on what we had intended as our next steps anyway.”
The Making Meriden Business Center did not draw the level of business activity city officials had hoped for when it opened in 2018. In between attracting entrepreneurs, Cooley and Biesek focused some attention on promoting the city through events designed to bring people downtown, including beautification projects, investor forums, the downtown Yule Fest, and the Old Church Concert Series.
“I was cautioned that it takes ten to fifteen years to bring back a city's downtown,” Cooley said. “But I naively thought with our new transit hub and the flooding problems essentially solved after the opening of the Meriden Green, that enticing businesses to locate downtown would be fairly easy, especially with national trends showing younger populations moving into downtown neighborhoods.”
But Cooley and others discovered that finding investors wasn’t easy.
“After being in the trenches now, it has been significantly more challenging than any product or service I've sold in my 35-year career,” Cooley said.
The lack of foot traffic downtown was also a challenge.
“So it's the age-old chicken or the egg problem — except now there is a pandemic crisis on top of it all,” Cooley said. “While that all sounds negative, Meriden is actually ahead of many cities, but needs to find some creative and significant investment to offset some of the risk of being the first into the ‘new downtown’ Meriden.”
Feest and his staff, who worked closely with Cooley and Biesek, will continue small business outreach. Biesek and Cooley will be brought back for special events, but have told officials they would be leaving at the end of the year. Cooley is confident Feest and the city will continue to support downtown’s recovery.
Earlier this year, the city matched MEDCO’s $45,000 investment in a shared workspace feasibility study that looks at whether the city could support such a concept for small entrepreneurs. The Meriden Business Center has the potential to morph into a shared workspace for startups, Feest said.
City officials also praised Cooley and Biesek for their efforts, while also recognizing the challenges.
“Dave and Lisa have done great work and have beat the pavement to get things to happen downtown,” said City Council Majority Leader David Lowell. “The economic impact of COVID-19 doesn’t help the situation...I’m sure there are lessons to be learned.”
City Councilor Michael Rohde called upon city officials to invest more in economic development.
“I worry that Meriden doesn’t seem to be investing like other cities and towns,” Rohde told the economic development, housing and zoning committee. “We have seen half a billion dollars invested in our community in ten years. It’s set us up a nice infrastructure which sets the table for economic development. How much funding is the city putting into it, how much skin in the game is Meriden going to have going forward?”