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  October 16, 2000

Coalition Plans to Upgrade Downtown

Mansfield has great natural beauty, a New England setting, and a beautiful college campus. But it does not have a "real" college town where townspeople, employees, students, visitors and guests of the University can gather.

Not yet, that is.

A new partnership between the Town of Mansfield, the business community in Storrs and the University could change that. The three have joined forces to revitalize the commercial areas of town, including the downtown - the commercial strip on Route 195; the King Hill Road area - near the police station; and Four Corners.

"This partnership is another opportunity for the town and the University to work together to achieve shared objectives," says Thomas Q. Callahan, special assistant to the president. "It has the potential to produce benefits for students, employees, visitors, guests and town residents alike."

The project should lead to a revitalization of the commercial areas and to making the downtown area a gathering place, says Mayor Betsy Paterson. "We'd like the commercial areas to be just as inviting as the rest of town, which has a quintessential New England feeling, and the University, where UConn 2000 has resulted in so much building and renovation."

The town-gown-business partnership in Mansfield is the outgrowth of a report done for the town by HyettPalma, a planning firm that specializes in small towns and is part of America Downtown. HyettPalma began its work here with discussions with many members of both the private and public sectors of Mansfield and UConn, collected data and completed a market analysis of retail, office, and housing markets in Mansfield.

The firm found agreement among both town residents and students that the business areas need to be revitalized and that increasing the variety of retail goods, recruiting additional businesses, and expanding the variety of restaurants is important.

By 2007, focus group participants said, they would like to see "a quaint downtown that shows our togetherness and community spirit."

The coalition is modeled on one in Newark, Del., where a similar project was managed by a coalition of representatives of the University of Delaware, the city, and businesses.

Just two years into that project, partnership members report that the "feel" of Newark is different. New trash cans with art panels on them attract visitors, and banners, street improvements, new trees, and sidewalks make the whole area more appealing, says Maureen Feeney Roser, assistant planning director for the City of Newark.

Much work is left to be done, she adds, but a new downtown directory is in its third printing in just 15 months, a web page advertises the city, and there is a "whole new feeling" about the downtown.

The downtown Storrs project could include a green, and a coordinated look with both the University and the new community center, which is to be built next to the Town Hall, at the corner of Routes 195 and 275. Also up for consideration is the possibility of adding apartment-style housing for graduate students behind the commercial area on Route 195, on 35 acres owned by the University.

Graduate students, on campus year-round, may then help support the town center, Callahan says. A decision about where to locate graduate housing is expected no later than spring 2001.

By then, the 12-member organizing committee of representatives of the town, business community and University, will be well on its way to developing a master plan for the downtown, the King Hill Road area and Four Corners.

While the downtown has the potential to be a center of town and University life, the King Hill Road area and Four Corners are gateways to the town and the University, say Paterson and Callahan.

King Hill Road is a significant location to the University because it is adjacent to the unfinished road that eventually will connect North Eagleville Road with Route 44 and because it is a hub for visitors and guests to the University, owing to the location of the new visitors' center. This road will take some of the traffic pressure off Route 44. And Four Corners is important because it is the main entrance to Storrs and provides access to Route 44.

The partnership between the town and the University also will include funding a position for an economic development officer, expected to be hired by the spring.

Karen A. Grava