Small business loans may not usually play a key role in winning architecture awards, but that is precisely what happened with the Philip Johnson Building, once part of the Schlumberger-Doll Research Center at 36 Old Quarry Road in Ridgefield.
“One of our officers, (Vice President, Senior Business Banking Relationship Manager) Josh Reilly, solicited them,” M&T Bank SBA Sales Manager Chris Earle said of New Canaan-based luxury furniture and design firm BassamFellows. The firm acquired the property in 2017. It had been vacant since Schlumberger moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts in 2006. “He called them and helped secure the loan that led to the property’s renovation.”
Ridgefield bought the 45-acre property for $7 million in 2011 with an eye toward repurposing two of the research center’s former buildings; the other is now home to ACT (A Contemporary Theatre of Connecticut). Over 130 residents unanimously voted in favor of $1-a-year leases for Bassam and ACT in 2017. Both leases revert to market rates down the line; Bassam’s lease rate increases to $100,000 in year 14, while ACT’s rises to $24,000 in the 15th year. Both are paying all maintenance, utility and liability insurance as well as common charges.
Key to the deal was the careful restoration of the historic Philip Johnson Building, named after the famed architect. The Schlumberger project, completed in 1952, was his first nonresidential building.
The $900,000 small business loan was used “mainly to restore the building as a multiuse facility,” Earle said.
Noting that it was “one of the first executive office buildings to mark the shift from urban to suburban living,” BassamFellows Creative Director Scott Fellows described it at the time of the deal as “an important building and an inspiring space to work and showcase our furniture and lifestyle collections.”
With Bassam and ACT taking up roughly 5 acres, the town plans to use the remaining 30 acres as a cultural center, part of which will remain as open space.
Work included dealing with extensive water damage and upgrades to its various systems.
The single-story, steel-glass-and-brick building consists of perimeter offices organized around a central core that contains an open-air landscaped courtyard, glass enclosed conference room and library.
In awarding it a Design Citation of Merit, Docomo US – a nonprofit dedicated to the preservation of modern architecture, landscape and design – cited it as “a thoughtful and beautiful project” that “feels as contemporary today as it was groundbreaking at the time.”
The Ridgefield project is indicative of an overall growing small-business loan business within the county for M&T Bank, said Earle, who is based in Norwalk. “As the economy continues to be robust, it’s definitely on the rise,” he said. “And Fairfield County is a leader in Connecticut as well as the nation in terms of economic well-being.”
The Buffalo-based bank is on track to top the $7 million in small-business loans it finalized in fiscal 2018, Earle said. “Through April we’ve done about $5 million, and we still have five months to go.”
While the federal government shutdown earlier this year left some small business loan applicants in limbo – the Small Business Administration was shuttered during that event – Earle said M&T worked to get as many of its loans processed ahead of the shutdown as possible.
“We try to be prepared for those kinds of things,” he said. “The bank has been very active in small business loans for over 30 years, so we’ve gone through a fair number of shutdowns.”
As such, he said, “We look at each situation on a selective basis, and can make an interim loan to a customer that is then taken out of the SBA loan once it is approved.”
One growing trend in the area is the number of younger applicants interested in taking over an established business when its owners age out and have no family members or others in place to take over the company, Earle said.
“We’re doing very, very well in places like Norwalk and Darien,” he said, “as well as the Danbury/Ridgefield area. Places like Stamford and Bridgeport are very competitive, but we’re maintaining a strong presence there as well.”