It’s not often that a relatively poor, small city sees a massive influx of infrastructure and housing investment that could change its economic fortunes.
But that’s what’s been happening in Meriden, which about 15 years ago began mitigating its longtime downtown flooding challenges. Those improvements have led to a rebuilt train station and ramped up CTrail commuter service on the Hartford Line, which has helped spur the construction of more than 230 rental units and counting, plus new retail and commercial space.
Now the city is looking to renew its brand, leveraging its new strengths.
As new buildings have gone up in recent years — mostly around a rebuilt 14-acre Meriden Green, just across State Street from the rail station — several part-time employees and a team of volunteers based out of a modest nearby storefront have sought to help bolster the development wave.
The Make Meriden Business Center (MMBC), which opened nearly two years ago on Colony Street, has been providing advice, introductions and location-scouting services for mostly small business owners looking to open in the city or expand existing operations.
Co-led by Meriden native Dave Cooley and marketing and business consultant Lisa Biesak, the MMBC has helped a food truck entrepreneur open a brick-and-mortar location downtown (Mr. Taco); brought more people into town for events like concerts, a pop-up art gallery and artist-in-residence program; and advised a tech company that makes GPS technology in its move to the city.
“Ultimately it’s economic development in that we want to see Meriden thrive downtown, to be a place to work and play and be exciting,” said Cooley, a longtime former executive at a research, analytics and data company called Evalueserve, who was semi-retired when he was tapped for the MMBC role. “To do that, we need to bring in new business, but to bring in new business, we have to do some placemaking to get people on the street.”
The office opened in early 2018 with financial and technical support from the nonprofit Meriden Economic Development Corporation (MEDCO), as well as the Midstate Chamber of Commerce and several corporate donors, and it has since cobbled together funding from the state quasi-public CTNext, the nonprofit CT Main Street Center, and a line item in the recent Meriden city budget.
“We’re good for the next six months, in terms of paying the bills,” Cooley said.
Photo | Contributed
The Meriden Commons II on State Street, which includes a four-story building with 49 residential units, and two buildings with 27 townhouse-style units, is part of a recent development wave in Meriden.
Getting beyond that will require the shoe-string-funded office to continue to perform and market itself. So far, it’s done pretty well.
MMBC activities between Oct. 2018 and June 2020 helped add 33 full-time jobs and 20 part-time jobs in the city, which had a total economic impact of $1.5 million. That was according to impact reports the center sends to CTNext to monitor its progress in exchange for its grant funding, which is expected to total $70,000 this fiscal year.
Cooley is modest about taking too much credit. MMBC helps facilitate; it doesn’t do everything.
“I can’t say we’ve gone out and recruited all these folks, but we’ve been able to help them come visit and make them confident they’re making the right move,” he said.
One official in the MMBC’s corner is Joe Feest, Meriden’s economic-development director.
“It’s really a satellite office for city hall,” Feest said. “To have a concierge service downtown is an excellent thing to get people interested in the buildings surrounding it.”
Feest’s team, Cooley, Biesak and others meet weekly, often for several hours, to discuss progress downtown.
“This has been very helpful to make sure that Dave and Lisa and myself are all working on the same page,” Feest said.
Looking ahead to the rest of the fiscal year, and hopefully beyond, MMBC is aiming to help more existing businesses, generate more leads for new ones, and have an increasing impact on Meriden’s revival.
One of its hopes is to help establish a co-working space in the city. MMBC is working with NESIT Makerspace and the Midstate Chamber of Commerce to conduct outreach to businesses and potential investors.
The city and MMBC are also working to recruit a brew pub near the train station, with the relatively unique selling point of customers being able to take a train to and from the watering hole.
“It’s definitely nice to see the city shine,” Feest said of Meriden, nicknamed the Silver City. “That’s really what we’re doing down here, we’re still polishing it, making it bright and shiny.”