Saqib Zafar bought Royal Fish and Chips, a modest but well-regarded fried seafood restaurant off of East Main Street in Meriden, in 2005, after learning that Lowe's would be building a store in the same shopping plaza.
At the time, a boarded-up Ames discount shop – abandoned since 2003 – sat on the spot where the new big-box home improvement store was slated to go.
"It was a jungle," said Zafar, 31, of the abandoned building. "Trees were growing into it."
But he had faith in Lowe's and though it was long in coming, the 120,000-square foot store finally opened in the Meriden Parkade in early 2008.
In the years following, business at Royal Fish and Chips doubled. Both Lowe's customers and employees came into the shop on a regular basis. It slipped a bit with the economic downturn, but business was still good so Zafar, a Danbury native, moved himself and his new wife to Meriden after their wedding this past Memorial Day to start their new life together closer to the restaurant.
And then, Sunday night, without warning, , along with six other under-performing stores throughout the nation. The shuttering locally put 94 full- and part-time workers out of a job and left Zafar, along with those affiliated with the 12 other businesses in the Meriden Parkade, wondering what would become of the plaza – and their own shops.
"What are they going to do with a building like this?" Zafar said Monday afternoon about the mammoth structure that housed Lowe's. "For years Ames sat here, now I’m waiting to see how long this building is going to."
A Lowe's corporate spokesperson said Monday morning that the chain itself was working to bring in another tenant quickly, and the city's Economic Development Office has also said it will work to help speed the process. (Representatives of the Pennsylvania company that owns the $11 million plaza - WP Realty – said they could not comment when reached by phone Tuesday.)
In addition to , the Meriden Parkade currently houses , , CitiFinancial, Subway, Prestige Cleaners, Ocean State Job Lot, Family Dollar, , Verizon, and .
Those who remember watching the Ames building languish hope the Lowe's closure isn't a repeat event.
Kyle Wnek grew up in Meriden and now works in a Verizon store in the Parkade that opened at the site in fall 2010 – a location that a co-worker said was chosen because Lowe's was there. After Ames closed,"This plaza was dead," Wnek remembered Monday.
Affiliates of some of the smaller businesses in the plaza said they looked to the parkade's next-largest store - Ocean State Job Lot - at 30,000 square feet, to keep customers flowing in. An Ocean State employee who declined to give his name said he thought that the Lowe's closure wouldn't harm the business much. "Our customers are repeat customers," he said. "It will be an eyesore, though."
Dennis Tarr, the Vice President of Operations at Brio Academy, a cosmetology school that has been in the Parkade for 17 years, said he thought the closing wouldn't have much of an impact on his business.
"This is the destination, this is their home," Tarr said of students. "It’s sad to see it happen with any company, though."
It's not the big businesses that have anchored the Parkade over the years, but the small ones, said Valencia Liquors owner Marc Rosen. His shop, which he took over from his father Albert, has been at the site for 48 years and has outlasted a host of big national retailers in the spot like Barker's, Brandsmart, Zayre's, Ames and now Lowe's.
Rosen credits his store's longevity to aggressive marketing and advertising.
"My father always told me be independent – don’t rely on the big box stores, be yourself," said Rosen, who has advertised on cable TV, radio, newspapers, and also sponsored a number of events in Meriden.
Rosen also said the liquor store's ability to adapt to changing economic climates has helped out. Customers will still come to the shop in hard times, Rosen said, but "instead of buying Budwiser, they’ll buy (the cheaper) Busch," so the store alters its stock.
Most in the Parkade agree that they won't know the actual impact on their stores from the Lowe's departure for months.
Zafar of Royal Fish and Chips said he's shaken by the Lowe's closing, but thinks his 25-year-old restaurant will still do well due to his loyal client base and becauase he's sandwiched in between Ocean State and Brio, which are both big draws.
"I’m lucky to still be here in this economy," he said. "All you can do is be positive."