Stamford Innovation Center facing eviction

By Kevin Zimmerman

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Time appears to be running out for the Stamford Innovation Center (SIC), which is facing eviction from its longtime home at 175 Atlantic St. in the building known as Old Town Hall.

“It’s incredibly short-sighted and detrimental to the ongoing economic development of the city,” declared SIC Managing Partner Barry Schwimmer. “Their actions, I believe, are unwarranted and will cause the company, the community and myself personally significant and irreparable harm.”

At issue: unpaid rent. As a condition of SIC moving in to the building in 2012, rent was waived by the Old Town Hall Redevelopment Agency (OTHRA), according to its chairman Tim Curtin. Beginning in 2013, monthly rent due was $14,000 to start and has since graduated to $16,000. But for the past three years SIC has only been paying “toward” utilities, Curtin said: “It’s not enough to cover the entire [utilities] bill.”

OTHRA is now in the process of crafting a formal eviction notice, Curtin said, which he expects to be delivered sometime next week. Yet to be determined is the eviction notice’s effectiveness date: “I can’t say right now whether it will be [Dec. 31] or not.”

As with most elements of the case, there is a lack of agreement over whether OTHRA has been open to discussions.

Schwimmer, who called the situation “very complicated and reasonably fluid,” maintained that SIC has been paying a portion of the rent as well as its utilities bills. “We notified them ahead of time that we would be unable to make full rent without bankrupting the company,” he said, “but they have refused to engage with us.”

“We talk regularly,” Curtin returned. “But starting with that third year, they just haven’t paid, saying they had no money.”

Launched as a business accelerator for entrepreneurs, the SIC rents space at its headquarters to businesses of all stripes, and has been expanding its calendar seemingly exponentially ever since, especially in regards to technology: It rolled out its first-ever Stamford Technology Week Sept. 14-18 and is in the midst of its inaugural Northeast Hackathon series, which began Sept. 16 and concludes on Nov. 13.

“A lot of good things have come out of the building,” Curtin said. “Tech Week was a very effective program, and the Start-Up Weekends they’ve been involved in have been well-done. We just can’t carry them anymore.”

“Good works” is one area where both sides agree. According to SIC:

  • Approximately 5,000 people participate annually in SIC sponsored events.
  • Approximately 100 workers and two dozen companies are currently housed at 175 Atlantic.
  • Over $30 million of capital has been invested in SIC startup companies.
  • Four SIC “alumni companies” have outgrown SIC’s space capacity and taken standalone offices in Stamford.
  • SIC resident and alumni company workers spend an estimated $800,000 annually at local businesses.

In addition, SIC has been exploring expansion into Norwalk, having led the Norwalk Planning Grant Application process for the state’s expanded CTNext program. “However, Stamford officials responded negatively to our efforts to work with additional communities,” according to Schwimmer. “It was our hope that our work in Norwalk, coupled with our outstanding track record in Stamford, would allow us to address this challenge.”

Disagreements between SIC and OTHRA even extend to the start of their tenant/landlord relationship. According to Curtin, the “free rent for two years” arrangement was offered “because that was a time when not many organizations were looking for space here.”

But such apparent largesse came at a price, Schwimmer averred, saying that when SIC originally signed its lease, it did so under the assumption that certain economic concessions would be forthcoming: “We invested about $300,000 directly into the building for infrastructure and improvements that needed to be implemented to make the building useful.”

Although the city reportedly spent some $22 million to renovate the building, “they did not complete things like flooring, electricity, HVAC and the like,” Schwimmer said. “The excuse we were given at the time was that they didn’t know who the tenant would be, so they didn’t know how to finalize the work on the building.”

He added that no plans have been made for SIC’s future, should the eviction come to pass. “We have not been served with a notice,” he said, “so we are working diligently to preserve the business we have developed and the good works we have contributed to the community.

“I’ve been really heartened by the outpouring of support we’ve received broadly from the community, despite the actions of the city,” he added.

Various parties have supposedly expressed interest in taking over the space, including several that SIC currently works with, according to Schwimmer, who declined to specify who they were.

“We’re not talking to any potential tenants until this issue is resolved,” said Curtin.

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