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Pandemic, Internet Disrupting Some Sectors of Essex Business Community –

By Elizabeth Reinhart/ • 08/25/2021 09:15 a.m. EST

Although the overall business climate in Essex appears to be thriving, there are certain sectors, such as hospitality, that are seeing an impact on customer demand because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and others, such as banking, that are seeing trends way from in-person services and toward electronic services, hastened by the pandemic.

This summer, the Spa of Essex announced to customers by email that it would be closing its doors. However, the building and property at 63 South Main Street in Essex, which formerly housed the spa, will not stand vacant for long.

On Aug. 13, the property sold for $900,000. Rick Weiner, a real estate broker with William Pitt Sotheby’s International Realty, who represented the buyers, confirmed the sale.

Asked about future plans for the site, Weiner said, “It’s still a little uncertain honestly, as to what the actual use is going to be. It will be more residential in nature.”

The property consists of three homes, including a multi-unit apartment-style home, on 2.79 acres near Essex Village.

“I’m disappointed any time a small business has to close their doors,” said Amy D’Alessio, president of the Essex Board of Trade. “So, I am sorry for them that it came to that. I am sure that COVID did not help them. And so, it’s just a shame to lose a small business.”

The Spa of Essex’s closure after more than a decade means the loss of an attraction for visitors and people from the local area looking to partake in spa and leisure services.

“Anytime you lose a business in a small community, the community is hurt by that,” said D’Alessio.

The closure of the spa also comes as two bank branches, Liberty Bank at 7 Main Street and Bank of America at 125 Westbrook Road, recently announced plans to permanently close.

D’Alessio, who owns J. Alden Clothiers at 17 Main Street, said that the closure of the Liberty Bank branch will be a “huge loss” and that she, along with other business owners, wrote letters to the bank, asking for it to reconsider its decision.

The closure will have negative repercussions, she said, especially for visitors that come for events, and for the residents and business that do their banking in town.

“And then, not only that, but we will also have an empty building on Main Street,” said D’Alessio. “So, an empty building on Main Street is never good. To lose a bank is very bad for business, for small businesses in a small community. So, I’m really disappointed by that.”

Liberty Bank in Essex Village plans to close this fall. The company owns the building and anticipates placing the property on the market, according to Adam Jeamel, senior vice president and corporate communications manager for Liberty Bank, in an email.

Numerous factors went into the decision to file for the branch closure with state regulators “including branch profitability, growth of [customer] households and deposits…[and] transaction volume,” said Jeamel.

The closure is a response “to our customers’ changing banking habits, advancements in technology and the presence of competitor banks in our markets,” he said.

Upon the branch’s closure, Jeamel said current customers can be served by Liberty Bank locations in Old Saybrook and Deep River, which are about five miles away from Essex Village.

But for many local businesses and residents, that distance is an inconvenience.

“They are asking all of the people that bank with them to now go to Deep River,” said D’Alessio. “So that is not great for business in our community. That will not help us at all. We do all of our business and personal banking through Liberty Bank, as do so many residents in town. So that is a huge loss.”

Essex First Selectman Norman Needleman said that the bank branch closures in town are indicative of national trends toward electronic banking.

“It’s just in a time when there are such small margins in banking because of the way interest rates are, this is accelerating the problem, and the pandemic accelerated the problem, but it didn’t create the problem,” said Needleman.

“Electronic banking is the future. I would love to have a local solution to that, but it’s more of a global problem, not an Essex problem. So, I don’t necessarily see a solution to it here,” he continued.

When it comes to filling the storefront vacancies left by Liberty Bank and Bank of America, Needleman said that due to Liberty Bank’s location, he expects “there will be more than one buyer looking at it.”

There could be challenges associated with the Bank of America building, as Essex zoning regulations do not permit drive-throughs except for financial institutions, he said.

“It’s really a zoning issue as to whether they would allow something different to happen,” said Needleman.

The empty Bank of America building joins another large vacant property in Bokum Center, a former supermarket that closed abruptly prior to the start of the pandemic in 2020.

“They are actively looking for a tenant,” said Needleman, who added that “people are leery because we are in and out of this boat of the pandemic. People don’t necessarily want to commit to too much right now.”