NORWICH — A couple of doors down from Foundry 66 and Epicure Brewing on Franklin St. are several small shops where a number of streetwear designers have established a foothold.
“There are six businesses that operate out of this storefront and they also have a Shopify program for each vendor. They’re not open because they are selling on the internet. Streetwear needs a 50/50 profile — you have to be online but you also have to have a brick and mortar and so there’s a kid here that sold a pair of sneakers for $1,600,” said Jason Vincent, president of Norwich Community Development Corporation, who led CT Examiner on a tour of downtown Norwich on Tuesday afternoon.
The corporation was founded in 1963 as a nonprofit economic development partner to help local government foster private investment in the city.
Vincent has an office in Foundry 66, a building which houses multiple floors of shared work space — desks, cubicles and offices rented month to month to organizations and individuals, nonprofit and for-profit — $140 for a desk where nothing is left behind, cubicles start at $250, small offices are $300 and up depending on size. Internet and unlimited coffee are included in the rent. The building has four conference rooms available for group meetings, and provides office supplies and equipment with the ability to print and fold like you’d find at a Staples or OfficeMax.
“We have people in media, people that are in manufacturing — they’re all over the range,” he said. “We have people who are remote workers who don’t need to be in New York City where their home office is and they don’t want to work at home, that’s a big piece of it.”
One of the small startups, Stitch Lab, brings together two or three different businesses. They’re a manufacturer, they screen print apparel and have their own streetwear brand. The business is headed by Joe Herdon, a Ledyard native who was planning to move his business to Brooklyn, NY, but chose Norwich after a cousin from the area told him about the city’s potential.
Vincent took a right at the end of the block and looped back across the parking lot and pointed out the Concept Design Group shop, another streetwear brand, connected to Stitch Lab and other businesses by a series of hallways inside the sprawling Foundry 66 campus building.
In the basement below Foundry 66, is a warren of fluorescent-lit spaces where the streetwear companies produced their wares. A large, industrial multi-arm screen-printer dominates the Stitch Lab space and numerous wood-framed design screens leaned against the walls. In the next room on long tables are the small, specialized transfer machines that Concept Design Group uses to create one-of-a-kind designs for its brand.
“What we have discovered is the streetwear scene has chosen downtown Norwich. Now we have two streetwear manufacturers. We have 22 streetwear artists that we have identified so far, we know there’s more, and we’re working to open up more storefronts for streetwear space,” said Vincent. “We’re trying to find a way… how do we remove the barriers for this industry to grow here? We have a working lab, as we’re calling it. We’re training new streetwear people everyday. We have eight kids in the program right now.”
Ashon Avent, 41, owns Concept Design Group as well as Main Avent Sports Apparel, and his new venture, No Luck All Hustle Custom Apparel.
“I was born in Hartford. Since I was 16, I used to sell drugs, I used to be a gang leader. I played basketball and I was lucky enough to go to college, I’ve been shot and stabbed multiple times.”
Avent earned an MBA and worked in the Hartford School System until layoffs pushed him onto another path. He joined Foundry 66 in 2016.
“There’s no reason I ever should have been here, but I landed here. I was making uniforms for a lot of different teams and I said I need to find a place [to work]. I drove around and drove around — I was so desperate. I came here and looked in the window. A guy opened the door and asked can I help you and told me to come back the next day. From that point on, I started as a regular member here,” he said.
In five years, Avent said, he sees himself running a youth program “to help them establish their dreams.” He also plans on expanding his business.
“I have to find a way to do that and to create the No Luck All Hustle scholarship program to help young aspiring entrepreneurs,” he said.
A $3.38 million initiative
In 2011, Norwich residents approved a $3.38 million Downtown Revitalization Initiative intended to “bring businesses, commerce, and employment opportunities to historic Downtown Norwich.”
Vincent presented a report to the Norwich City Council on Nov. 16 summarizing the results of the initiative, which was broken into three tranches: code correction, lease rebate, and a revolving program.
The program allocated $1.8 million for code corrections in vacant upper floor spaces to make them compliant for use as commercial or residential space. The program paid up to 50 percent of the cost of improvements, typically up to $100,000, with the goal of making 75,000 square feet of space available. Of the 43 applications received, 22 were awarded assistance and 14 projects were completed.
“For every $1 that was committed to that program, $7 of private investment was committed to match that funding on the code promotion,” Vincent told the council.
The commercial lease rebate program leveraged a one-to-13 ratio return on the city funding, which included 19 properties. The program allocated $500,000 to subsidize up to $5 per square foot for multi-year leases, encouraging businesses to establish footholds in downtown Norwich. The goal was to fill 75,000 square feet of space. ‘
The $1 million revolving loan fund leveraged a one-to-three ratio return for the city and offered qualified businesses located in downtown Norwich favorable term financing. The goal was to offer financing to 15 to 40 businesses over the 10-year period and to continue as funds are repaid. The program has had eight applications approved, which are still making progress payments.
Vincent said that $3.3 million has leveraged $35 million in private investment and “activated” 150,000 square feet of downtown Norwich.
“Downtown went from about 57 percent occupied in 2011, based on some of the documents that were prepared at that time, to what we believe is 78 percent occupied today,” said Vincent.
The downtown area was originally estimated at about 1.3 million square feet of space, but that number did not include properties considered ineligible for the program, including churches and city buildings, which were later added in. The new total came to about 1.732 million square feet of space, with about 600,000 square feet, or 34 percent, unoccupied.
About half of that unoccupied space is considered “unoccupiable” because it needs more than $1 million in improvements to become viable space.
“I really believe at this point that, realistically, when we take out the unoccupiable spaces, it puts us at closer to 80% occupied, I think this is a better story, because it’s more realistic,” he said. “This program can’t be judged on moving the needle on unoccupiable spaces,” Vincent told the council.
For example, he said, the 50,000-square-foot YMCA building has been vacant for over a decade and needs $150 per square foot in improvements — including new HVAC, utilities, and roof — to make it occupiable, an investment of at least $7.5 million. Property values in downtown Norwich average about $65 to $70 per square foot, or $3.5 million for the YMCA building.
“There’s a gap, it’s pretty significant, it’s almost $5 million. This bond program can’t fix buildings like this … There are at least a dozen of them downtown and this program isn’t robust enough to take care of them, but the properties that the program could take care of, it did,” he said.
Alderman Derell Wilson asked how Vincent would modify the 10-year program, which will expire in April, should voters bond for a second round.
Vincent said he saw the most value in continuing the code correction program not only downtown, but in other areas across the city where improving one building could increase the values of an entire neighborhood.
“So out of all the three programs, the code correction actually aligns to your brand because it is asset development to some degree, we were trying to take vacant spaces and make them more valuable. So that’s if I were looking to do that I’d try to find other places in the city where that can be as impactful,” he said. “There are neighborhoods throughout the city where we have buildings that are not activated … it could just be one building that’s surrounded by 10 great buildings — but unsticking that one building to bring all of that up. The rising tide raises all ships. And so anything the city could do to help unstick projects where the markets are creating a gap, I think those are high value.”
Many downtown street-level retail spaces are empty and Vincent said filling them was not an easy task because many need a build-out, including a bathroom. The downtown retail spaces often require long term leases but finding tenants who can commit is difficult, he said.
“What happens in commercial space that people don’t understand is that when you go to rent an apartment, it comes with everything, it’s ready, you don’t have to spend money to make it occupiable,” he said. “That’s not how commercial real estate works — you rent the box and then tenant improvements are paid for by the tenant or the landlord, but they’re an add-on to the rent.”
The city has 143 properties downtown and 123 of those have some kind of distress associated with them, said Vincent.
Many properties are in distress, Vincent explained, because of issues with the ownership.
“One of them is absenteeism, they’re just not present enough to understand what’s happening with the building everyday so they rely on other people — some of it’s their fault, some of it is not,” he said. “Another is being underwater — they purchased the building and the market collapsed on them.”
One fully-occupied retail space was Craftsman Cliff Roasters at 34 Broadway, where owner and Norwich native Matt DuTrumble stood amidst burlap sacks of coffee beans while he turned adjusted the knobs of a bright silver roasting machine and tapped numbers into a series of timers. Behind him, instead of tables and chairs, were multiple shelves piled high with product — coffee, tee shirts and schwag — as well as a machine measuring out coffee beans, a label-making machine, and a huge refrigerator to hold chocolate. The wooden bar where customers once sat, was now a work surface holding a laptop and piles of papers.
“I love food science and I wanted to approach roasting from a chef’s perspective,” said DuTrumble, who returned to Norwich to open the shop in May, 2017. He earned his associates degree in culinary arts and bachelors degree in business from Johnson and Wales University and studied at the Le Cordon Bleu in San Francisco.
Along the back wall, cocoa beans, previously roasted and shelled in-house, whirred in special grinders.
“I learned to make chocolate the traditional way and I like to start from the beginning of everything and I went to Oaxaca, Mexico, to learn to stone grind. This is the same process, it’s been going for a few hours and we’re going to go for a few more and then we’ll pour them into bars,” he said.
He stepped over to several enormous tubs of coffee beans and opened the lids.
“Smell these. This is Ghana coffee, it’s fermented, not that strong, maybe a little apple cider-y. And this one is citrus-y,” he said, as timers beeped and he headed back to the roaster to adjust the dials.
Since the pandemic began, he has pivoted his business from retail to mostly wholesale and manufacturing.
“We were a full-on coffee shop with a nice menu off the panini press, and beverages. We were rocking and roaring and then March came and so since then we pulled out the benches and the seating and put new equipment in to go full-force factory mode,” he said. “We decided to take out a few accounts and truly by word of mouth alone, or maybe the thought I put into the universe, one account came after another and now we have a lot of accounts.”
He also opens the shop on “Beanesdays” every other Wednesday so that locals can stop by and stock up. The shop now ships to about 38 states every month and roasts about 500 pounds of coffee per week. Word of mouth is popularizing his brand, he said.
“There are deep, deep coffee forums and we’re getting mentioned,” said DuTrumble.
Back on the street, Vincent walked and pointed out several new businesses, eventually arriving at DocXellent, a software company that occupies the upper floors of 257 Main St.
Vincent said Bob Sullivan, president and CEO of the company, was a good example of someone, like DuTrumble, who grew up in the area and decided to locate his company in downtown Norwich.
“Those ‘yo-yos’ are what we’re trying to attract right now,” said Vincent of the “returning entrepreneurs” the city hopes will fill its vacant spaces and bring economic vibrancy to downtown.