Two small businesses closed this year after finding it hard to stay in downtown New London
New London ― Two small artistic businesses have closed in the downtown area this year. The owners said they want to be in the city but have found it hard to stay, citing issues of affordability, worn down buildings and lack of foot traffic.
The Annex, a collective of local and regional artists, closed its shop selling clothing, prints and more on 24 Bank St. in August after being there a year and two months. Cristin Rivera, one of the artists and owners of the shop, said they would have loved to stay but there was water damage in the building that eventually turned into mold.
Rivera owns the shop alongside her husband and visual artist Denny Rivera and their friend Frank Marchany, founder of the apparel brand The Famous New London. Rivera said water leakage and humidity had direct damage to about $600 worth of artwork and products and they knew they could no longer stay.
Rivera said the landlord was aware of these problems. She said she understands the issues were a big cost and doesn’t know what kind of support her former landlord may have had.
Thomas Crosby Jr. owns 24 Bank St. under Bank Street Roadhouse LLC, and could not be reached for comment.
Prior to closing the shop downtown, Rivera said they were managing another location at the Westbrook Outlet mall. She said they received an offer to rent a space at the outlet mall during the summer.
Rivera said they’ve always wanted to have more than one location. She said their collective of artists at the Annex started with five artists and has grown to about 30 artists, including a few from Maine and Vermont.
For now, Rivera said they are going to focus on their Westbrook storefront, continuing to promote events in New London online. She said they would like to eventually return to the city.
“New London is our home base and where we want to be. It hurts not to be there,” Rivera said.
The Annex owners have spent the better part of the past 15 years in and out of the city. In 2007, Marchany and Denny Rivera opened a sneaker shop/art gallery on Green Street called Muse. Two years later, the Riveras opened a boutique called Aticc; both closed in 2010, before the Riveras moved to New York City for a few years. The Annex collective had its start as a pop-up on 60 Bank St. for a couple of months in 2021 before moving to 24 Bank St.
Rivera said they have looked for a new location in the city but the biggest issue is finding the right space. She said renovated spaces are priced higher. As a collective of artists, she said they cannot afford $2,000 a month for rent.
“The places that are affordable are falling apart,” she said.
Based in the city for eight years, the Marquee Gallery on 74 State St., next door to Thames River Greenery, permanently closed in May due to similar circumstances.
Owner Clint Slowik of North Windham got his start in New London assisting at a gallery once in the Harris Place building in 2012. New London to Slowik is “such a beautiful area” and the community is great with an art community that gets along. He opened his own gallery in 2014, aware the rented space was a fixer-upper.
Slowik said he spent high six figures in repairing the space before opening the gallery. Over the years, Slowik built a collection of international and local artists with artwork ranging from $100 to tens of thousand of dollars.
Throughout his leasing, Slowik said roof and facade leaks and old damaged plumbing were commonplace, adding it was a mixed bag as far as severity.
He said there were brief periods of seasonal relief and temporary band-aid repairs but they were generally short lived. Slowik had two landlords in his eight years there, with the last one being Eric Hamburg when he bought the property in 2018 for $400,000.
Hamburg owns multiple buildings in the downtown area.
In the final eight to nine months before leaving, Slowik said there was a substantial leak he was told was fixed but it eventually completely destroyed the gallery’s front reception area. He closed the gallery to customers in September 2021.
The issues went months without getting fixed all the while Slowik stuck around and said he paid rent. He said the landlord kept saying that it was the fault of the building next door, so there was back and forth between the landlords, the city and no one was taking responsibility. He finally left in May.
Reach by phone earlier this week, Hamburg said when he purchased the building in 2018, he was aware it would need a new roof. And after some increased leakage the following year, he said he did replace it for $100,000 as well as a wall next to the neighboring Cronin building. The Cronin building is owned by Yehuda Amar, another developer with multiple properties in the area.
In early 2020, Hamburg said water started coming into apartments he had renovated in the rear of the building and he traced it to the Cronin building.
Hamburg then spent a year or more reminding Amar to fix his wall and spoke with the city’s blight and building inspectors. He said Amar did get a brick mason to do some work but unfortunately the mason only did half of the wall and the issues continued.
“When the buildings are so close together, one building can have a negative affect on the other,” he said. “His building is higher and when it comes wet, the brick acts as sponge without mortar.” Hamburg said the water from the Cronin building was seeping under his roof.
He said, “It’s a problem in New London and a lot of buildings are not taken care of and causing damage to neighboring buildings.”
Hamburg said he talked to Slowik and felt terrible as the water was coming in from the front of the gallery. He told Slowik he could break his lease in April and he’d pay him back the rent he paid each month going back to September.
Slowik said getting that money back was certainly better than nothing even though he was still out all the utility expenses, lost business and relocation costs.
Around the same time, Hamburg said Amar approached him asking him to fix the issues because he could not find anybody to fix it. Hamburg agreed and a crew of his workers repointed the front corner of the Cronin building where water was seeping into the gallery and other work to the neighboring wall.
Hamburg said he has yet to bill Amar on the work done.
He said he has a cordial relationship with Amar and was glad when he approached him about fixing it. Hamburg said he is now in the process of gutting the ground floor of his own building where the gallery was and hopes to have it ready to rent again next spring.
Slowik now operates the Marquee Gallery online where he features the work of different artists.
In the midst of the issues at the gallery, Slowik said the city was getting the largest infusion of funding from the American Rescue Plan Act. He said he doesn’t know if the funds the city has received have been well-spent.
The city has received $26 million in ARPA funds and has made efforts to boost infrastructure improvement efforts in the downtown area with the influx of COVID-19 pandemic relief funds the city has received.
The city has a Downtown Revitalization Project, which totals $27.1 million in state, city and privately-funded redevelopment costs. The project includes five private properties, and four will receive state grant funding to match a portion of investments from private developers and owners. The city is also applying for another round of state grants to improve other buildings.
Slowik heard of the Annex closing, knowing a number of artists at the collective. He said he knows how difficult it is for young emerging businesses in the city, facing issues with little foot traffic, landlords and rent.
He said most days over the last tens years, he was lucky to see half a dozen people in the week. But Slowik said the city has potential and he is interested to see if the Coast Guard museum will make a difference.
“You have to be one part crazy and 100% adore New London to open a small business here,” Slowik said.
He added he hasn’t counted out going back to the city.