‘We’ve done so much during the pandemic and we’re thriving’

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Monroe Chamber of Commerce President Ray Giovanni, left, presents a Business Beautification Award to Doris Ritenour, center, owner of Hair by Doris, and her husband, Patrick, during the Chamber's annual meeting at the Monroe Diner Wednesday.

MONROE — Doris Ritenour had tears in her eyes, while recalling how she had to close her new business, Hair by Doris in Gaslight Square on Monroe Turnpike, soon after opening it last year, because of restrictions from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We opened like a week and they shut us down,” she told guests at the Monroe Chamber of Commerce’s annual dinner and meeting, held under a tent outside the Monroe Diner Wednesday night. “I thought I was going home for two weeks, three weeks … no. I was going nuts for four months.”

Since then, Ritenour celebrated a delayed grand opening with town officials and Chamber members last October and her salon has thrived. She received a Beautification Award at Wednesday’s dinner with her husband, Patrick, who did all of the salon’s interior renovations, standing by her side.

“He stepped up,” said Ritenour, who grew up in a family of barbers and hairdressers in Honduras. “It’s hard for a small business and I’m glad everybody’s here to give my story. We all can do it. We have to step up and never give up. Thank you. Thank you for all of you guys. It’s hard. But you have to believe it and you have to believe in yourself. Let’s keep us going as a community. You guys support local business and you have to keep it up.”

Aside from welcoming new businesses with ribbon cutting ceremonies, Chamber members host networking events and lunch and learns that teach businesspeople social media and other skills they need to succeed.

During the dinner, Beth Stoller, a Chamber member who heads Power Network, a leads group with Monroe and Newtown chamber members, unveiled the Monroe Chamber of Commerce’s new website.

Stoller has been reaching out to members to setup their profile pages on the site, which also has a calendar of events. She encouraged members to bring her any news they want to share, which can be posted on the website, Facebook page and in the Chamber’s monthly newsletter.

“We’re here to support you,” she said.

Monroe Chamber of Commerce President Ray Giovanni was the master of ceremonies during its 55th annual meeting Wednesday. Last year, the Chamber actually grew its membership during the pandemic. It now has around 90 members.

On Wednesday, the Chamber welcomed its new members and gave out Beautification Awards to 12 business owners who made interior and/or exterior improvements to their buildings and grounds.

Masuk High School seniors, Caleb Manicke, left, and Abigail Kellogg, received scholarships in honor of past Monroe Chamber of Commerce president John Dry.

Masuk High School seniors, Caleb Manicke and Abigail Kellogg, daughter of First Selectman Ken Kellogg, received scholarships in honor of past Chamber president John Dry.

The first selectman was among the featured speakers at the event and an election was held for the Monroe Chamber’s Board of Directors. All terms expire in June of 2023.

There were no challenges. Giovanni will continue on as president with Jan Snyder as vice president, Janice M. Butler as treasurer, Karina K. Perez as secretary and Lee Hossler as ambassador.

The rest of the board includes Tom Betzig, Ron Bellenot, Esq., Bruce Minoff, Jim Weinberg, Previn Patel and Wendy Grasso.

Champions of affordable housing

Renée Dobos, chief executive officer of Connecticut Housing Partners, speaks during the Monroe Chamber of Commerce dinner at the Monroe Diner Wednesday.

Among the new Monroe Chamber of Commerce members were Renée Dobos, chief executive officer of Connecticut Housing Partners, attended the event with Robin Jerrild, director of development.

Connecticut Housing Partners received approval to build 49 units of affordable senior housing on Main Street, near the former Skate Time. Dobos talked about the project.

“We’re so excited to be in Monroe,” Dobos said. “We consider ourselves champions of affordable housing. We’ve been in business for over 30 years. We have multiple developments throughout Fairfield County and now we’re very proud to say that we’re coming to Monroe to build a 49-unit senior affordable housing development just down the street, on Main Street to the right.”

When it comes to affordable housing contracts, Dobos said one cannot simply get a $13 million loan from a bank and start building. Connecticut Housing Partners is seeking funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, tax credits from the state of Connecticut and other funding sources.

Dobos and Jerrild gave out umbrellas, along with an information sheet on its Buy a Brick campaign. A section of the brick walkway that will lead from the parking lot to the building’s main entrance will feature engraved bricks showing all who supported the project.

Each 4″ x 8″ brick costs $250 and will be engraved with whatever the donor wants it to say. CHP hopes to sell 1,000 bricks for the project. All donations are tax deductible. For information, or to place an order, email Robin Jerrild at [email protected]

Happy to be in Monroe

Erika Foster, director of planning and implementation for DOCS Medical Group, talked about DOCS Urgent Care, which opened at 427 Main St. in March. The medical specialty group has 20 centers in Connecticut.

“We’re really, really excited to be a part of Monroe,” Foster said. “It’s been a great experience so far, just joining the community. Everyone is very excited to have us here, which is nice.”

In addition to urgent care, Foster said DOCS offers primary care and occupational medical services, adding some of its locations also offer allergy testing and treatment.

“We’re open five days a week, but we’re going to be open seven days a week shortly,” she said of the Monroe location.

Susan Stonoha, who recently opened Tollgate Wine & Spirits in Tollgate Plaza, 838 Main St., with her husband Joe and their partner Joe DiBartolomeo talked a little about their new store.

“We are a 4,000-square-foot liquor store that just opened up at the corner of Pepper Street and Route 25,” she said. “We have a whole array of beer and craft beer and, of course, liquor and wine. We looked around the area. We looked in Trumbull. We looked in Fairfield. We looked in Monroe. We looked in Shelton — and settled in this location. It’s such a great location. We’re so happy to be in Monroe.”

Stonoha invited everyone to come to Tollgate Wine & Spirits’ wine tastings.

Debbie Malewicki, a Monroe native, owns USA Tutors, which offers k-12 tutoring, college tutoring, college prep, ESL and professional development.

“When you come to us, what you’re going to find are certified teachers on the k to 12 levels and qualified, experienced faculty in higher education. When you’re talking about college prep, we’ve all worked in the university environment. We’re the admissions directors, the university directors, the faculty reading the admissions applications for your family members as they’re coming in.”

Malewicki said they also assist with preparation for the SAT, ACT and AP Prep tests. She was scheduled to have a table at the Farmers’ Market and invited guests to talk to her about the importance of college placement exams.

Joanne Fox of Your CBD Store Monroe, 574 Monroe Turnpike, said her business is all about wholistic healing. It is a hemp-based company with “all sorts of wonderful products.”

“I look forward to getting to know everyone and about your businesses and what you do,” Fox said, before offering a personalized one-on-one experience for a consultation about CBD to anyone who is interested.

Fox also accepted a Beautification Award on behalf of 574 Wines, which she shares space with in the building on Monroe Turnpike. Prior to opening, the liquor store improved the appearance outside, in addition to making renovations and other improvements inside the store.

Other businesses winning Beautification Awards were All That Canine, 849 Main St.; Grassy Plain Smoke Shop, 838 Main St.; Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate Gaetano: Marra Homes, 588 Monroe Turnpike; Aubuchon Hardware, 590 Main St.; The Painted Goddess Salon, 244 Roosevelt Dr.; Smoker’s House, 150 Main St.; Noble gas, 195 Monroe Turnpike; Little Steps Daycare Center, 574 Monroe Turnpike; and Monroe Pizza and Pasta, 230 Roosevelt Dr.

‘We’re thriving’

First Selectman Ken Kellogg, right, speaks during the Monroe Chamber of Commerce’s annual meeting at the Monroe Diner Wednesday night, as Chamber President Ray Giovanni looks on. Photo by Lee Hossler

First Selectman Ken Kellogg expressed optimism about the local economy.

“We’ve had dozens of new businesses open up during the pandemic,” he said. “It’s a testament to Monroe, its community and our team. I’m proud that we’ve done so much during the pandemic and we’re thriving — and we continue to have strong interest in Monroe.”

Kellogg touted what he said were improvements to help businesses succeed in town including a restructuring of the land use department, funding for the hiring of an economic and community development director, relaxed regulations, and efforts to offer permit approvals online.

Kellogg said the town relaxed regulations on outdoor dining with administrative approvals. Vazzy’s Osteria, 415 Main St., will have the first permit for permanent outdoor dining and Monroe Diner, 568 Main St., is next in line, Kellogg said of plans for a patio there.

He said the Planning and Zoning Commission recently approved a revised Plan of Conservation and Development for the next decade.

Mixed use zoning and overlay zones will allow flexibility of uses for commercial property in a limited responsible way, according to Kellogg, adding businesses are finally moving into the Stevenson Lumber property, which was dormant for years.

Next, Kellogg said the town wants to revamp its commercial tax abatement ordinance to be remain competitive, while still growing its tax base.

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