NORWALK, Conn. – A South Norwalk tale of “Upstairs, Downstairs” is being played out in the press, as two community organizations that share a building fight out their differences through lawyers and press releases.
At issue is the operation of 98 South Main St.; South Norwalk Community Center (SNCC) and NEON (Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now) are “co-equal, co-owners ‘Tenants in Common’,” according to SNCC President Warren Peña. SNCC is on the first floor and NEON is on the second, but they are not getting along.
Four South Norwalk Community Center (SNCC) board members felt “intimidated, threatened and bullied” when they left a September meeting with four members of NEON (Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now), SNCC President Warren Peña said in a recent open letter.
On Tuesday, NEON Chief Operating Officer Chiquita Stephenson fired back with an open letter of her own, using similar language.
“NEON will not be bullied,” she said. “NEON will not have its character and mission tarnished by individuals or entities that provide incorrect information in the hopes of clouding individual’s judgment and support about and to NEON.”
Peña sent an email to his board members and NEON that evening. “No one on my board has received this letter,” he said. “It clearly went to the press first for whatever reason. I received a phone call from The Hour, which is how I found out this letter was written. Also, my email address was incorrect so I didn’t receive it until now.”
Stephenson’s letter (attached below) outlined her version of the history of the dispute and asked for information from the SNCC board. She said an audit revealed that NEON was paying all the operating expenses for the building, although Peña said he wanted SNCC to operate separately.
NEON had asked for an information-sharing meeting last July, she said. “Needless to say, this process did not take place, and the SNCC board chairman instead has made his allegations, unfounded statements not to mention an inaccurate fiduciary statements about NEON to the press,” she said.
She further questioned the execution ofa $100,000 Community Block Development Grant to SNCC, which has been given preliminary approval by city officials.
“As joint tenants, there are common space areas, how does SNCC propose to do the renovations if awarded the $100,000 with NEON being joint owner, and NEON’s input not included, although, NEON is paying all utility and overhead expenses for 98 South Main Street, Norwalk, Connecticut?” she asked.
After saying NEON would not be bullied, Stephensen finished her letter with, “We will entertain productive communication and dialogue that will successfully move individuals, families and our communities forward to economic growth and stability. It is our understanding that our attorney has delivered to your attorney the requested information and, we are willing to continue our dialogue after the receipt of the information NEON has requested in the paragraphs above.”
Peña said in his February open letter that NEON had been provided with all the documents it had requested.
“I have received a letter from your attorney asking me to cease communication with your leadership and for them not to respond to my ‘verbal threats,’” he said. “Let me assure you that I have not threatened anyone and take that allegation very seriously. What I have said is that if by Feb. 1st, we do not have luck in setting a meeting, NEON would be hearing from our attorney and that I would in good conscious have to inform the public. We would much rather have a conversation and leave the press and public out of this.”
In Tuesday’s email, he said that a planned April 2 meeting would likely not occur, delaying possible resolution of the dispute.
“I think it was a very poor choice to write this letter just days before our scheduled meeting, not to mention extremely unprofessional,” he said. “Last I knew, Attorney [Michael] Widland requested that we leave the media out of this. Now you have forced me to respond and it will not be favorable towards NEON.”
The documents would answer NEON’s questions, he said. SNCC does not want a relationship with NEON outside co-ownership of the building, he said.
“The SNCC feels that it has been abused by NEON, and when you take a look at it, NEON has done a very good job in getting us down to 1.5 EEs [employee equivalents], off as subcontractor on the HHD [Human Hispanic Development] grant, no programming (because everything we had is operated or administered through NEON now), MPR [multi-purpose room] rent of net 10k in 2012 and have taken 3/4 of our space on the first floor,” he said. “Therefore, not allowing us to rent out our floor to other agencies to help pay operating costs of the building.”
Peña then delivered the “bottom line.”
“The SNCC wants NEON off the first floor completely,” he said. “Frankly, we don’t even want NEON customers roaming or waiting on the first floor. We’d like to make it so that only SNCC business and clients come to our area. We have to figure out how to co-exist in the one line of business that holds us married, which is the building. Since NEON has done what is has done to the SNCC, we obviously will need time to fund raise, restructure and rebuild the center so we can function properly. What would have happened to the SNCC if I didn’t step in on Chiquita’s request or recommendation?”
Peña conceded that some of Stephenson’s complaints had merit, but had a counter argument.
“NEON can effectively say that we have not been contributing to the overhead, but we can turn around and say NEON should be paying the SNCC rent for all the space they have occupied on the first floor,” he said. “What about all the unilateral decisions NEON has made without SNCC consent? I really question the motive of an entity that has $15-$20MM in revenue on an annual basis and it’s quarrel with an entity that has 10k in revenue. The only thing I can think of is space, which is through hearsay, what I understand NEON has wanted the entire time. The SNCC is prepared to take this to court, if need be, to make sure that as 50% owner, we get back what we are entitled to and what is rightfully ours.”
Expect more details of the conflict to emerge.
He said, “I guess we’ll be playing these back and forth games, which is really unfortunate.”