Tone Balzano Johansen, 51, is no stranger to hardship, but the past seven months have shown her just what a “tiny little blonde lady,” as she calls herself, can accomplish under the direst of circumstances.
The sole remaining owner of Brooklyn’s legendary waterfront tavern Sunny’s Bar — who helped her husband, Sunny Balzano, reopen the watering hole after it sustained serious damage during Superstorm Sandy in 2012 and who lost her beloved spouse to a stroke last March — has raised the $65,000 down payment she needed to keep the dive’s doors open.
“I can’t tell you how many people would tell me that it was hopeless and that I would fail,” said Johansen, a Norwegian-born artist and musician whose “by hook or by crook” fundraising campaign has netted a total of $68,000 through grassroots efforts since it kicked off in March.
The bulk of that money will go toward making an initial payment to purchase the building occupied by the bar at 251-253 Conover St., of which Johansen currently owns a small share. (The widow arranged to buy out 18 other members of her husband’s extended family for a total of $2.6 million in November.)
Any extra funds collected will help cover the roughly $35,000 she accrued in legal fees over the three years it took to iron out a contract with Balzano clan members, who would have preferred to sell the entire property, in Brooklyn Supreme Court.
While Johansen relied on the advice of two real estate lawyers to tackle legal matters, she turned to her loyal patrons for financial support. The “Sunny’s Forever” campaign tapped into customers’ affection for a 127-year-old Red Hook business that once served longshoremen on their way home from the docks and that many today consider a borough institution.
In her fundraising efforts, Johansen organized cookouts, gift raffles, concerts, art auctions and live jazz on Monday nights. Friends helped along the way, donating artwork and sharing their musical talents.
“The same way as the bar has developed organically, it’s been an organic fundraising campaign,” she said. “I think that’s the way we do everything.”
The slow, dogged pursuit of her $65,000 mark took its toll on Johansen. “I feel like my spirit has been on a diet of gravel,” she recalled telling one confidant.
But she persisted, she said, “because I feel really I truly owe it to my customers. They’re more than customers. This is not just a place that you come to get serviced — it’s a place ... where people matter in each others’ lives.
“This place is fueled by pure love, and I’m telling you it’s the best gas you can get,” she added.
For those who contributed to those “gas” reserves, she offers gratitude and a musical celebration planned at Littlefield (622 Degraw St.) at 7 p.m. on June 21, the summer solstice.
“It’s a celebration of life,” she said. “It’s the longest day of the year, the sunniest day of the year — what better day?”
Johansen hopes to have her real estate contract finalized by that date.
“It is a relief,” she said of the $68,000 raised. “but I’ll sleep a lot better when this is closed down and it’s all done.”