Governor, Others Celebrate CT Reopening Steps, Resiliency During Local Press Conference
State, federal, and local officials all convened in Sandy Hook last Friday afternoon, where they celebrated the successful launch of a small business during a pandemic, another step for the state toward full reopening, and a national milestone that was reached ahead of schedule.
Governor Ned Lamont, Lieutenant Governor Susan Bysiewicz, and US Senator Richard Blumenthal were welcomed by Aquila’s Nest co-owners Neviana Zhgaba and Ardian Llomi for an afternoon press conference at their Sandy Hook vineyard. The March 19 event also highlighted local business partnerships that have already been formed since the Albanian couple opened their Pole Bridge Road vineyard in October.
Zhgaba and Llomi also welcomed State Representatives Raghib Allie-Brennan and Mitch Bolinsky; David Lehman, commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development; Bryan Hurlburt, commissioner, Connecticut Department of Agriculture; Rosemary Bove, industrial regional outreach manager, Connecticut Department of Tourism; Andrea Gartner, board member, Cultural Alliance of Western Connecticut; Briggs Tobin, board chair, Fairfield County’s Community Foundation; and Charles Mallory, CEO and founder, Greenwich Hospitality Group.
The vineyard’s owners had a fire going in the wood stove inside the indoor visiting space, and refreshments for their guests as all arrived.
Just five months after their opening, the couple was excited, they told The Newtown Bee, to welcome the group of officials. They had a very good first season, they said.
“We stayed open all winter,” Zhgaba said. “We never expected to be able to, but we had many people who wanted to come here and enjoy the fire pits and the views. They came even in the middle of the snow.
“We shoveled paths to the fire pits,” she added, laughing. “We’re really looking forward to warmer weather.”
The couple has partnered with a few local businesses, some of which were also part of Friday’s event. John Boccuzzi, co-owner of BD Provisions; Loree Ogan, of Loree’s Kitchen; and employees of Melissa’s Flowers were among those participating in last week’s event.
“We have partnered with other Newtown businesses,” Zhgaba said, “which has attracted more people here.”
Zhgaba and Llomi offered a private behind-the-scenes tour of the working area of the vineyard to the visiting officials. They then led the party outside, where additional friends and supporters were waiting for the press conference.
First Selectman Dan Rosenthal joked about the size of the gathering, saying “it looked like they brought the entire Hartford contingent here.”
Governor Lamont congratulated the hosts on their opening. He noted that Aquila’s Vineyard was one of a large number of businesses that opened in the state last year.
“More new businesses started last year than in many previous years,” he said.
The governor also complimented the couple’s business plan, saying he loved “that you did this yourselves, with farmland.”
Bysiewicz said it was exciting to be celebrating a recently owned business, one that is co-owned by a woman, “especially during Women’s History Month.”
The lieutenant governor was the first to note that the vineyard’s owners “had the courage to open a business during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The pandemic has had a terrible and devastating impact on our economy,” she added. “But at the same time, we have seen very courageous business owners step forward in a time of challenge and open up a new business.”
Bysiewicz said Zhgana and Llomi have created “a beautiful destination, a place where people can gather safely.”
She is looking forward, she said, to additional business openings as the state continues to lift COVID restrictions.
Blumenthal pointed out that the country had reached a milestone that afternoon, in that 100 million COVID-19 vaccinations have been “put in people’s arms.” President Joe Biden had set a goal of reaching that number by his 100th day in office. The goal was reached, Blumenthal pointed out, on Day 58.
“We are at the tip of the spear of making America safe,” the senator noted. “Today is very special.”
Connecticut continues to lead the curve, he said, in terms of safety and vaccination rates.
“That means more people will go to restaurants, visit retailers, all the public places we’ve been missing,” he said.
“But here’s the blunt truth,” he added. “We have no reason to be complacent. We are in a race against time and further infections. To be really safe, everybody needs to be vaccinated.”
Small businesses have benefited from loans and grants, and will continue to, the senator also said. He announced that Aquila’s Nest had already benefited from some, including a $125,000 loan for equipment and a $3,000 Paycheck Protection Program loan.
The business, he said, is among those now eligible for Restaurant Revitalization Fund assistance. That program will bring $28.8 billion into the state, he later added.
“That’s billion, with a B,” he reiterated.
The senator also complimented Zhgana and Llomi on their efforts, and what they have already accomplished.
“I am not a drinker, I’ll admit it, but I’m going to come back here,” he said. “This place is so exquisitely beautiful.”
Blumenthal said, “Today is a monumental day. It is a bright spot amid sadness and grief, and justifiable anger over what happened this week in Atlanta.”
Although it was very cold and windy on Friday, the senator told those gathered that “spring is really coming. Today is a day to celebrate a wonderful family business opening. Many families will celebrate here, for many years. I am really proud to be here today.”
Rosenthal said that the outreach already seen by Aquila’s Nest is what Newtown is all about.
“The residents have always looked out for each other, and the community has looked out for each other,” he said. “I knew Neviana and Ardian would quickly make their way into the fabric of this community. It’s great to see how they have been working with and in the business community.”
When she had a few minutes at the mic, Zhgana shared some of her family’s background. She also echoed that opening during the pandemic brought challenges.
“It also allowed us to change our goals and be even more committed to this,” she said.
She and her husband, she said, “are so proud to be part of the Newtown community.”
Collaborating with local businesses, she said, will “enable this corner of Fairfield County to continue to grow.”
Lehman offered brief remarks, saying in part that “reopening the state further today, and continuing the vaccines, is key to everything.” He complimented Zhgana and Llomi for demonstrating that “small businesses are resilient.”
Hurlburt agreed, saying that “a lot of provisions of our economy are reopening.”
He is excited, he said, “and looking forward to doing a lot more of these celebratory events.”
Per Bove, a recent Office of Tourism survey reported that eight out of nine Americans are ready to travel again and that 63 percent of those surveyed are “very comfortable” with outdoors events including fairs, carnivals, concerts, and similar gatherings. She said that she looks forward to adding the Sandy Hook vineyard to the Connecticut Wine Trail.
Bolinsky said the word that best describes the new business is “inspiration.”
“Not only did they open during a pandemic, but they did it with a bang,” he said. “This facility is what Newtown is all about: resiliency, neighbors, excitement.”
Allie-Brennan applauded Zhgana and Llomi for their spirit and hard work.
“As the son of an immigrant, I understand the sacrifices that you have made for your family,” he told them. “I commend you for this beautiful location.”
Telling them he looks forward to “Ubering here with my friends,” he turned and offered Zhgana and Llomi “Brohoritje,” or “Cheers” in Albanian.