Volume 18 • Issue 41 | February 24 - March 2, 2006

Downtown Express photo by Talisman Brolin

Jasmin B. Mehta, from Bombay, India, speaks with Jeremy Waldrup, executive director of NYC Business Solutions in Lower Manhattan, about his business plan to open Charm Holidays, a tour and travel agency.

Looking for solutions to small businesses’ big problems

By Ronda Kaysen

Laura Stevens knew her upstart theater company had outgrown its fourth floor walkup playhouse on Broadway and White St. Every weekend, throngs of New York parents slung strollers over their shoulders and hauled their kids to Manhattan Children’s Theater performances. Stevens and her partner, Bruce Merrill, knew they had to jump to a larger house if they wanted their fledgling company to grow. But as a nonprofit, they were stuck – wholly dependent upon ticket sales and grants, they lacked the capital to make a move.

“There was no way we’d be able to move waiting for federal dollars,” said Stevens, an impeccable blond sitting in her sawdust covered Tribeca office one bitter February morning last week. “We needed to move to a larger, more accessible space.”

On a whim, Stevens attended a Downtown Alliance seminar about non-profits taking out loans, an idea that had never occurred to her. It seemed impossible – what bank would loan money to a nonprofit?

The Downtown Alliance seminar led her to the New York City Small Business Solutions Center at 79 John St., a drop-in center for the Dept. of Small Business Services. The center, launched a year ago next month, helps small businesses at every stage of their development, from creating business plans, to filing city permits, to applying for loans.

Caseworkers at S.B.S. helped Stevens apply for a $100,000 loan from Seedco, the company that runs the center. “They sort of held my hand,” she said.

The Dept. of Small Business Services is a Mayor Michael Bloomberg creation. The department was formed shortly after he took office in response to his 2001 campaign promise to support small businesses. The solutions center, with its glowing green and white entranceway, is more storefront than city agency. Jennifer Martinez, a cheerful woman, runs the reception desk, doling out “simple solution” printouts to inquiring entrepreneurs and scheduling follow-up appointments.

“It’s designed to be more like a bank branch than a typical government office,” boasted S.B.S. assistant commissioner Michael Hecht.

The center has its own call center where 311 callers with small business-related questions are redirected. It offers classes and seminars and provides business owners with individual caseworkers to help them apply for loans, wade through the complicated bureaucracy of city permits and grow. This month, the agency launched a Business Express Web site to help businesses better interact with city government.

“They’re a very valuable resource for the Downtown business community,” said Downtown Alliance Assistant Vice President Andrew Lamm. The Alliance, Downtown’s Business Improvement District, has a contract with S.B.S. to provide services. “They’ve been a very valuable tools; we’ve referred hundreds of people to them.”

Halfway down the curving block of New St. between Beaver and Exchange Place sits Christopher Norman Chocolates, a high-end chocolatier. The elegant storefront is in stark contrast to the rest of the block – a ragtag collection of delis, pizzerias and a barbershop.

But the owners, Joe Guiliano and John Down, see a changing neighborhood. “The Downtown area in the next few years will be pretty happening,” said Guiliano.

After 10 years spent toiling at a factory in an alley off of Rivington St. — “It was pretty dicey” — Guiliano and Down decided it was time to add a retail component to their factory operations and move to a more appealing location. But moving into a transforming neighborhood came with its own set of complications. “Even though the programs exist, there’s a lot of red tape, it’s hard to get in touch with the right people who can help you out,” said Guiliano. “It can be really challenging sometimes, because you’re running your business at the same time.”

S.B.S. opted to open its second Manhattan location Downtown (it’s other one is in Harlem) because of the fragile retail community here. “It’s all about proximity,” said Lamm of the Alliance. “With small businesses, you have such limited staffing capabilities, the less time you have to spend traveling the easier it will be and the more likely you will be to use it.”

In Nov. 2003, Guiliano opened a retail store and on-site factory at 60 New St. after securing three loans, one of which was from Seedco. Guiliano found support and direction from the Alliance, S.B.S. and Wall Street Rising, a non-profit founded after 9/11 to help Downtown businesses. “They were all wonderful, they provided a lot of information, a lot of support, a lot of advice,” he said, adding that the drop-in center, which opened after he relocated, is better equipped to help start-up businesses than established ones like Christopher Norman.

Despite the help from the various agencies, “A lot of things we were promised have not come true yet, they seem to be put off and there is a lot of interagency wrangling,” Guiliano said. He declined to elaborate on what those promises were.

Guiliano is not alone in his frustration about access to resources Downtown. At a Town Hall Meeting for small businesses last month at Pace University, small business owners voiced concern about the rapidly changing neighborhood, asking panelists how they might be able to cash in on the new retail space planned for the World Trade Center site. The panelists, made up of Downtown business leaders and city officials, spoke more about an increasingly hot retail market than they did about resources available to businesses already Downtown.

S.B.S. does not have any incentive programs of its own. Creating incentive programs is an issue for the city’s Economic Development Corp., S.B.S. spokesperson Benjamin Branham said. What the agency can offer is a way to trudge through the inter-agency red tape. “My advice to a business owner is to come see a counselor” at S.B.S., said assistant commissioner Hecht.

Manhattan Children’s Theater opened its first show, “Sideways Stories from Wayside School,” in a new White St. location in September 2005. “It was hectic to say the least, but when my audience walked in and didn’t have to walk up four flights of steps it was a relief,” said Stevens. Having signed a lease the previous month, she and her business partner had scrambled to convert an old antique shop into a wheelchair accessible, 74-seat theater with a design shop and office space in the back by the opening performance.

This week, the theater launched a new weekday program for toddlers, Little Tales. The program introduces two-year-olds to theater with folk tales. “You couldn’t have done it in the old space,” she said. The first week “was fantastic. The vision of us believing we could do it and watching it come true is fantastic.”



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