Newtown — After the tragedy, the center of town nearly emptied.
The brook still flowed through the small, downtown-like area, of course, but many of the once-bustling businesses of Sandy Hook Village are now boarded up.
“I’ve had several people say that they just didn’t feel comfortable coming down here,” said Sharon Doherty, who’s lived in Newtown her whole life and has owned PJ’s Laundromat in Sandy Hook Village for 12 years. She’s lost customers recently.
Before the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, just a mile up the road, the area was a central point for holiday shopping and eating. On the days after Dec. 14, it choked with out-of-town traffic, stifling many businesses. Still, eateries and coffee shops were teeming — reporters packed the Demitasse Café, hungry for free Wi-Fi and a cozy atmosphere.
Then the media left — and the local customers didn’t return. There are no more teachers, schoolchildren or parents coming from just up the street. The Demitasse Café is boarded up. So is Stone River Grille, which served pub-style food. The owner of the antiques gift shop Country Mill is certain her days are numbered.
Through lunchtime on a beautiful, sunny day — one of the first real days of spring this year — the bridges and sidewalks alongside the brook were empty. Rob Provenzano, owner of the nearby Ronnie’s beauty salon, was the lone walker taking a quick break from work.
“It’s basically been at a standstill now,” said Provenzano. “…What a black cloud this turned out to be.”
And yet, as Hartford comes off the heels of passing some of the toughest gun laws in the United States, as President Obama travels to the state to push for federal action along the same lines, and as the residents of Newtown struggle to return to normalcy, there are new businesses coming to Sandy Hook Village.
The owners say they didn’t think twice about what happened a mile from their front doors. But there’s no denying a sense of purpose on their part to turn Sandy Hook from a flashpoint of tragedy to one of transformation.
Provenzano opened his salon on April 1. Business has been decent so far, he said, maybe in part because he’s luring customers with $5 haircuts.
“I know it’s crazy, but I just want to get people down here,” he said. “And I thought, let’s just do this, and my workers were on board. Some were like, no way, and left. But the ones that stayed — now I know they care about the people in Newtown.”
Driving through in February, he stopped to take a look at the space where his grandfather had opened up a salon more than 80 years ago. It was called Sandy Hook Barber Shop then. In February, though, it was empty, and after a quick conversation with the landlord, he decided to take it.
He didn’t think twice about the risk of starting a business so close to the scene of a massacre that has driven customers away.
“I feel like I’m from here. So I figure it’s the only thing I can give back,” he said. “A great service, for a great price.”
Nearby, construction workers were busy remodeling the old 4,000-square-foot, two-story building that once housed the Stone River Grille. When it was built in 1857, it was a general store. In January, after Stone River Grille had closed, it was snapped up by Chris Bruno.
A chef from Danbury who owned restaurants in Connecticut and New York, Bruno wanted to get back into the business. He heard about the place from a realtor friend in Newtown. As soon as he saw it, he was in love.
“It has its original luster, that old world feel. It just emanates coziness and comfort and approachability,” he gushed as workers worked to turn the 2nd floor into a wine bar with a lounge and charcuterie/cheese/chocolate bar, with space for a live band and piano.
The restaurant will debut as Foundry Kitchen and Tavern by the end of April, to be opened seven days and nights.
“People did try to discourage me from taking this space, and I just really felt like this is where I wanted to be,” he said. “I see life here. I see life is going on.”
The Demitasse Café, too, will soon be replaced by another coffee shop. The owner of the building plans to open the Village Perk in the next several weeks, and try to find someone else to take over the business.
A consortium of business owners and community members are meeting each month to discuss how to revitalize Sandy Hook Village, to bring it back to what it once was, said Provenzano and Bruno.
Provenzano said he’s willing to try anything. He’s even considered a free hot dog cart on the street. Anything to bring life back to normal — recognizing that things can never really be the same.
“That’s the key word: Normalcy,” said Doherty, owner of PJ’s Laundromat. “Everybody needs to get back to the normal routine, whatever it is.
“Whatever the new normal is, we all just need to get back to that place again.”