Months before the Wall Street meltdown, Borough President Scott Stringer wanted to get a better idea of what life was like for Manhattan’s mom-and-pop stores. His office assembled a panel of local experts tasked with suggesting innovative ideas for assistance, and began surveying merchants on one major shopping corridor in each of the borough’s 12 community districts.
“We’ve spent so much time worrying that the federal bailout comes down. And what do we worry about? We worry about Wall Street,” Stringer said. “There has to be a conversation worrying about the mom-and-pop stores.”
On the Upper East Side, the survey covered stores on Lexington Avenue between East 75th and 86th streets. On the Upper West Side, the focus was on Columbus Avenue between West 72nd and 83rd streets. In all, 125 owners and managers responded to the survey, a 10 percent response rate.
The result of the outreach is Saving the Mom & Pops: Ten Ways to Support Small Independent Retail Stores and Keep Manhattan Vibrant, a list of recommendations designed to target some of the biggest problems small businesses say they face in today’s economic climate. Stringer left commercial rent control, a hot-button issue that has stalled before, to the City Council. But ideas that did make the cut with the panel include altering zoning regulations to make room for small, independent stores and helping retailers reduce energy costs.
“We asked them to come up with things that were not pie-in-the sky, that were actually achievable in a year or two,” Stringer said of the panel.
Carol Puzone, owner of Bazaar de la Paz, on Broadway between 101st and 102nd streets, was one of the small business owners that provided feedback to the borough president. Her boutique, which she says is the only 100 percent fair-trade store in New York City, sells eco-friendly furniture, décor and other handmade items from around the world. Artists must be paid up-front, which is why she feels the report’s most important recommendation is to increase micro-lending.
“For me, that’s the biggest issue,” Puzone said. “When you’re in retail, you have overhead.”
According to Stringer’s report, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has allocated an additional $5 million to an existing program that guarantees revolving loans (money that is lent, paid back with interest and then lent again). Stringer recommends doubling the pool of micro-loans by adding $20 million to the working capital of nonprofit lenders like Accion and Seedco, which specialize in serving businesses that can’t traditionally get money from banks.
Harris Healy III, owner of Logos Books, is another merchant who gave feedback to the borough president.
“It was really gratifying to see the city take the time to actually talk to small business,” Healy said. “That’s kind of a change in direction.”
Lower taxes and more protection and support for commercial tenants are two things Healy said he’d like to see. For example, leaks in the building that’s home to his York Avenue store, near East 84th Street, have damaged merchandise, warped the floor and taken up precious time. It would be immensely helpful, he said, to have a city agency that could act as a point person with the landlord, or even explain his rights as a commercial tenant.
Stringer’s report suggests tax relief for struggling retailers and better connecting business owners with assistance and advice from city agencies and nonprofit organizations.
The report’s final recommendation is to create pilot districts where some of the highlighted ideas could be tested out on a smaller scale. Stringer said his office would be accepting applications from interested business improvement districts and groups of independent storeowners.
And there are still signs of life for many small businesses. Although the Wicked Wolf Restaurant, on First Avenue near East 75th Street, is closing, a second branch of the Second Avenue Deli is reportedly taking its place later this year. Across town, the highly publicized closing of the Emerald Inn, on Columbus Avenue near West 70th Street, was delayed because the landlord was reportedly unable to find a new tenant willing to pay the increased rent. Stringer agreed that lease extensions are something Manhattan may see more of in the coming months, but they do not offer long-term stability.
“I think that’s a great success,” Stringer said of the Emerald Inn situation. “On the other hand, it’s a short-term solution and we’re going to need to do more for the immediate future.”
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