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    Monday, August 08, 2022

    Two downtown Norwich businesses still cleaning up after Sept. 2 flood

    Ashon Avent, owner of The Main Avent Athletics & Apparel, points to the level the water reached at the electrical box in his basement shop. The shop had over 4 feet of water from the heavy rains from the remnants of Hurricane Ida on Sept. 2. (Claire Bessette/The Day)

    Norwich — Nearly a month after 4 feet of water flooded his screen-printing shop in the basement of the Sunlight Building on Franklin Street, Ashon Avent still is pulling out soaking wet polo shirts, hats, custom-printed jackets and tote bags.

    Avent, owner of the Main Avent Athletics & Apparel custom design and printing business and T-Shirt World, lost at least $30,000 worth of clothing inventory, plus two printing machines, custom designed screens for steady customers and a great deal of momentum in his effort to recover from COVID-19 setbacks.

    It’s the same for his business neighbor, Joseph Herndon, owner of American Stitch Lab, which makes custom embroidered apparel, along with screen printed promotional materials. Both have been part of the vibrant entrepreneurial scene at the corner of Franklin and Bath streets. Herndon estimated his losses at over $45,000, including six machines.

    Both of their liability insurance companies denied coverage, and they did not have flood insurance. Both have provided their estimated losses to the city for its submission to the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the hopes the state will be approved for a disaster declaration for damage from the 7.5 inches of rain that hit Norwich on Sept. 2 from the remnants of Hurricane Ida.

    “It’s disheartening,” Avent said. “You put all your effort, your resources and your energy into something, and now this happens. It was hard enough during COVID.”

    “Insurance didn’t cover it,” Herndon said, “so we have to move on. We did apply for FEMA assistance. It’s not looking too warm and fuzzy right now.”

    Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Avent hosted pop-up shop events to market his wares and products of neighboring shops in the Foundry 66 shared workspace setting. When COVID-19 hit, youth and high school sports shut down, and his custom athletic apparel line immediately was put on hold. He switched to making affordable printed T-shirts to fill the gap and partnered with e-commerce retailers to print their licensed merchandise.

    As things picked up, Avent was forced to prepurchase hundreds of blank shirts and keep them as inventory to avoid supply chain disruptions when customers placed orders.

    Many of those shirts, hats and jackets and the cardboard boxes containing them sank to the bottom of what became a 4-foot lake in his workshop. He tried to salvage as much as possible, spending hundreds of dollars at local laundromats to clean the least damaged items. But some boxes were hit doubly by sewage overflow, and the stench was nearly unbearable, he said.

    Some customers couldn’t wait for his slow recovery and canceled orders, forcing him to pay refunds with what little money he had in reserve.

    P.C. Restoration of Stonington, a fire and water damage cleanup firm, donated the use of two industrial fans to dry the basement and sprayed mold-prevention chemicals.

    “Three weeks in, and we’re still cleaning out,” Avent said. “Finally, (the floor) is cleaned and dry.”

    One printing machine remains operational, and Avent found a plastic tub containing unharmed printed tote bags for East Lyme Giving Garden. “They were in a plastic bin. They floated,” he said.

    A professor at Eastern Connecticut State University, Avent mentors business students and provides internships for entrepreneurial students. This semester, two interns are learning firsthand the risks of starting and running a small business, as they helped pull still soaked, dripping shirts from the ruined boxes.

    Herndon, a 21-year Army veteran and now a recruiter for the Connecticut National Guard, also is looking to the future. Two of his machines are working, and he is taking orders, although American Stitch Lab has not yet reopened. He hopes customers will be patient with a slow turn-around for orders.

    Herndon’s wife, Kari Herndon, and his sister, Jessica Persad, are busy with their own venture at the Foundry 66 complex. The two women are preparing to open their new coffeehouse, Cream, on Franklin Street in late October.

    Joseph Herndon and Avent both are looking for new, expanded space to continue their businesses, perhaps elsewhere in the Foundry 66 complex — “No more basements,” both said — or other local spots.

    “You have to use your all, your best effort,” Avent said, “and hope for some help, maybe a grant or something.”

    Norwich Mayor Peter Nystrom was at Avent’s shop the day after the flood, when Avent's insurance agent told him the damage would not be covered. Nystrom said he urged the two business owners, and all others who suffered damage from the storm, to submit their information for possible FEMA aid.

    Finding city assistance might be more difficult. Nystrom said the city’s federal American Rescue Plan grants allow for assistance to businesses affected by the pandemic. He counted Avent’s inventory loss in that realm, since the pandemic-related supply chain disruptions forced Avent to stock up on materials.

    “You wouldn’t normally keep that level of inventory,” Nystrom said, “but he had to buy in bulk.”

    The City Council recently approved a $2 million grant to the Norwich Community Development Corp., which runs Foundry 66. At least $400,000 of the grant is reserved for small businesses. The funding will be used for building code improvements, lease rebates and revolving loans, so Nystrom said the two flood-damaged businesses could qualify if they find new space in Norwich and are approved through the application review process.

    Mary Riley, community manager for Foundry 66, said Foundry has “minimal” management over the retail Sunlight Building, but its businesses are Foundry members. The agency will help the businesses find new space, possibly on the second floor at 66 Franklin St., as well as assistance moving their machinery.

    “COVID was hard enough to get through,” Riley said. “To get to this place, where they were up and running, to have it swept away by a flood. It’s a difficult situation to be in.”

    c.bessette@theday.com

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