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Longtime Battery Park City resident David Spencer, 44, decided that a local chamber of commerce was needed for the neighborhood small businesses. After reaching out to Rosalie Joseph of the Battery Park City Neighbors Network, the group had its first meeting in October. Spencer, a tax and corporate lawyer who works from his home at Gateway Plaza, sat down two weeks ago with Downtown Express at Brookfield Place to talk about the B.P.C. Chamber and its goals.
Interview has been condensed and edited.
—Dusica Sue Malesevic
Why did you move to New York City and settle in Battery Park City?
I grew up on Long Island, by Stony Brook. It’s a university town — my father was a professor of mathematics there. I grew up on the island, you’re always in the penumbra of New York City and I know a number of islanders who have settled here. Interestingly, I came to Battery Park City after Sept. 11 — if you signed a two-year lease, you would get a subsidy. I moved from Tribeca so it wasn’t a big move. I hadn’t really known the neighborhood much before that. And I’ve been here every since. I have kids — both sons, one is 9 and one is 2. This is a great neighborhood for kids — arguably the best neighborhood in the city for kids.
What spurred the idea for a neighborhood chamber of commerce?
Networking. I participate in networking because I’m a small business [owner], but it occurred to me that there was nothing local. We have a neighborhood and there’s all these small businesses and nobody is bringing them together in what a classical chamber of commerce does all over the country I figured let’s see if maybe this is worth doing to start one.
I talked to a couple of people I know in Battery Park City and one of them said you should talk to Rosalie [Joseph] — she knows everyone. She’s run the block party for as long as anyone can remember. It’s been her network that’s really allowed this to happen. I think I had eight people initially and she had 42 people. I sort of said, ‘Look, I’ll send out the emails, but we need your Rolodex.’ And she had the Rolodex.
How often has the chamber been meeting?
We’ve been meeting about once a month. We took a bit of a break around the holidays ‘cause so many people are busy during that season, especially the restaurants and food businesses just can’t make it out. Now we’re starting back up and we [had] our second meeting of the new year on Feb. 3. We have a nice interesting history in that we have never met at the same place twice so far. The good spin on that is we’re trying to find the perfect place to meet.
There are no dues or fees?
Yes. We just had our first thing were we’ve needed some money to set up a webpage, just a few hundred bucks so we just passed the hat — voluntary contributions. But I don’t want this to be something where you just get the sense that people are, ‘Alright, now pay up the dues.’ I just find that annoying. I feel its better if its true volunteerism. I don’t think that we’ll have a problem with money. There is not much we need, honestly.
What are some of the goals?
Take a step back, what does a chamber of commerce do? The first thing is that they just network. You have your local dentist, your local banker, your local grocery store and they all get to know each other so they can cross refer business. If you ask any small business what are the top three things they need — it’s customers, customers and customers. Everything else is numbers four through ten at best.
The second thing is to — I sort of flippantly say — to gossip. To find out what’s going on in the neighborhood. What’s going into a location. Oh, someone’s moving in there, what have you heard? Especially [since] we have a lot of construction in the neighborhood. How are things going to play out, how are different businesses doing? [It is] a chance to just meet each other and socialize and gossip.
Then the third thing … is to be — I call it ‘one-stop shopping’ for charitable fundraising. If you’re a non-profit endeavor and you’re looking to be funded, particularly if you have some connection to the local community, rather than go around to 40 different people and give your pitch, a chamber of commerce is a place where you can show up, give your pitch once.
We won’t lobby unless we get an 80 percent plus vote. I didn’t want to specifically illuminate any political activity. The national chamber of commerce, to which we are not affiliated in any way, does lobby.
Are there specific challenges to having a small business in B.P.C.?
The ground lease. I don’t have to worry about it because I don’t have a storefront. Rent in B.P.C. is high, specifically because of the ground lease.
What is the chamber focused on now?
We need to get everyone signed up so that all local businesses are aware that it exists. I also don’t want to redo things. We had a guy come in [and] give an educational session on the new labor laws for small businesses. That was great, but I feel like we got a little north of 50 members now so there’s at least 200 businesses that we’ll have to repeat that for later, which is fine.
Our unofficial list came out that we think there are somewhere in the realm of 200 storefront businesses in Battery Park City. And that’s before all the businesses that are going to come in when this complex [Brookfield Place] is finished.
We also have the two of the largest corporations in America headquartered in Battery Park City: American Express and Goldman Sachs.
Have you reached out to them at all?
I want to bring us up to a size where we can have [a] good relationship of equals. I have some other ideas for down the road how I think that, in fact, they could be very helpful to the small business community here. But I want to get all the small businesses organized first into a nice-sized group and then reach out to them and talk about if we could partner.
One question I don’t know is how many people commute into Battery Park City everyday. It’s a big number. A lot of them are people with high amounts of disposable income. If there’s a way to connect the small businesses that are local with those people as potential customers …[that] would be a very powerful thing.