Eastern CT chamber set to open New London headquarters this month

July 09, 2023 3:53 pm • Last Updated: July 09, 2023 5:47 pm
By John Penney
Day Staff Writer

New London — The day before the Fourth of July holiday, a short-sleeved Tony Sheridan navigated past a maze of donated furniture inside what will soon be the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut’s new downtown headquarters.

Sheridan, the chamber’s president and chief executive officer, roamed through the 8,300-square-foot former Merrill Lynch home at 92 Eugene O’Neill Drive pointing out the space’s new kitchen, 60-seat conference room and reception area.

“Here’s where we’ll have 12 workstations,” he said, gesturing to a long main room still packed with cabinets, chairs and desks. “We plan to add lockers and the outside patio area will have internet service. We still have some touch-up painting to do.”

The chamber’s new headquarters and its associated co-working spaces and start-up business incubator ― dubbed the Thames River Innovation Center ― is set to open for business on July 23. The move marks the culmination of a years-long plan by chamber officials to shift operations from their long-time home in Waterford.

“I always felt New London was a unique city; I graduated from Connecticut College and met my wife here,” Sheridan said. “We are a regional chamber, but New London, a regional transportation hub, is where we belong.”

The move, which will be celebrated at a future formal ceremony, was facilitated by $1.5 million in partial-match state grants, $100,000 in city American Rescue Plan Act funding and “more than a million” in private sector donation commitments, Sheridan said.

And while the chamber’s 10-person full-time staff will be ready to greet visitors later this month, Sheridan said he’s still working to lock down those small business owners he envisions will work ― and network ― from the building’s 12 offices and shared facility spaces.

“I’ve got five promises right now, but nothing in writing,” Sheridan said.

The co-working areas will function similarly to the Foundry 66 flexible work-space model in Norwich. Tenants will have the option of renting a desk for a couple of days, a cubicle on a monthly term or a full office for a year or more.

Rates have not yet been set, but Sheridan said a full suite of amenities will be included in each rental category.

“The rent will help us pay our bills, but we’re not doing this to make money,” he said. “We are still a nonprofit.”

The innovation center piece will focus on regional entrepreneurial training, technical apprenticeships and business development. Sheridan said he’s aiming for a mix of business tenants, including lawyers and financial experts, who may occasionally be asked to serve as pro-bono “advisers” to their less experienced work colleagues.

Sheridan insists there’s a hunger locally for the kind of practical training the center will provide. He said a recent eight-week pilot program run by the chamber focusing on entrepreneurship drew in 38 attendees, 28 of whom completed the course.

“But our initial goal was just to get 10 to 12 people to sign up,” he said.

Mayor Michael Passero said the chamber’s imminent opening marked the completion of a journey begun decades ago when the group left its original home in New London.

“Everything comes full circle,” he said. “It’s further evidence of New London as the cultural, business and urban center of the region and the city’s recognized role as a leader.”

Passero credited the chamber’s location shift to Sheridan’s leadership and its members’ regional commitment.

“It couldn't have happened without the greater New London business community recognizing that New London is the place where the chamber could have the best regional effect,” he said. “I’m over the moon about this.”

The chamber boasts a roster of 1,300 members from across the eastern half of the state. Samer Delgado, owner of soon-to-be-opened Fit F.A.M. fitness training center on State Street, said he joined the chamber just two weeks ago.

“I want to have a great opening in mid-August and be able to network,” the 38-year-old personal trainer said. “When I was working with the city, they mentioned joining the chamber.”

Delgado said he was pleased to learn the chamber would be based in the same city he’s working from.

“It’ll be awesome to be able to go right over there when I need to right here in New London,” he said.