Downtown Express photo by Jefferson Siegel
Nayan Barua and his wife Lipika, both at right, stand on Fulton St. outside their gift shop. They say the street’s construction barriers have hurt their business but they did not apply for a grant program because the paperwork was too complicated. The program, which has been in the works for over a year, has been delayed and the first checks will not go out for at least another four weeks. Nayan said: “We pay from our pockets without making any money…. It’s very hard to survive.”
Checks still not in the mail for struggling shops
By Julie Shapiro
One year after the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation said it would help small businesses floundering on construction-choked streets, businesses have not yet received any money.
“I will not believe it until I see it,” said Aleks Misyuk, owner of My Optician at 88 Fulton St. He applied for a grant three months ago and heard recently that he would get $12,000, which he would put toward advertising and trying to increase foot traffic to his business. He said his sales are down 30 percent since much of Fulton St. closed last year for the replacement of a 150-year-old water main.
The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, which put out the first details of the grant plan last July, launched the $5 million Small Firm Assistance Program in February and made the formal announcement in March. Twenty-nine businesses have applied so far, but while the L.M.D.C. initially expected businesses to receive their first checks by May, the businesses still have not gotten them.
Mike Murphy, spokesperson for the L.M.D.C., said the agency messengered over six applications on Monday to the city, which will cut checks for a total of $120,000. But Kara Alaimo, spokesperson for the city Department of Small Business Services, said Wednesday that the city hadn’t received anything from the L.M.D.C. She said when the applications arrive, her office would review them and send them to Comptroller William Thompson, who would put the checks in the mail. That will take another four to six weeks, she said.
The L.M.D.C. is still reviewing the other 23 applications. On many of them, the business owner did not provide enough information, Murphy said.
One of the six business owners expecting a check soon is Dib Reda, who owns Stylz, a hip-hop clothing store at 114 Fulton St. The L.M.D.C. told him he would get $8,000 by the end of July, although that no longer appears possible.
“It’s a little bit of help,” Reda said. “Anything could help…. It’ll make you feel stronger, make you have more hope for the future.”
Reda moved to Fulton St. two years ago, after his building at Dey St. and Broadway was demolished to make way for the Fulton St. Transit Center, a project now on hold because of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is out of money. Reda, who is from Lebanon, ran the store on Dey St. for 16 years before being forced out.
“It’s a terrible feeling,” he said of looking back over the last several years of difficulties. “If you know that area, and you look at it now, you cry. That was the heart of Lower Manhattan.”
He said the construction on Fulton St. has reduced his sales 20 to 30 percent, and he sometimes has to give merchandise away just to bring people into the store.
As Reda spoke from behind the counter at Stylz, which was empty on a weekday afternoon, the phone rang. It was one of his shoe suppliers, who had tried to come to the store the day before but couldn’t get his van past all the road closures.
“I know it’s no good, but what can you do?” Reda told the supplier. “You have no other choice.”
Not every business that needs help was able to apply for the grants. Nayan Barua, whose wife owns a gift shop at Fulton and Gold Sts., said the application was too complicated. Unless he gets some help soon, Barua said he would have to shutter the gift shop by the end of the summer.
“We pay from our pockets without making any money,” said Barua, who is from Bangladesh. “All my credit card is finished…. It’s very hard to survive.”
He said he and his wife have lost $30,000 on the store so far, and for the past three weeks they have been unable to pay an employee.
“We’ve never faced this situation before,” Barua said. “We are in a very hard time.”
After hearing stories like Barua’s, the L.M.D.C. decided to change the application to make it easier for more people to apply and for those who have already applied to get approved, Murphy said. The L.M.D.C. is trying to strike a balance between complying with federal and city regulations and getting the money out to people who need it as quickly as they can. Once the L.M.D.C. revises the application, they will reach out to Downtown businesses and help them fill out the forms, Murphy said.
To be eligible for the program, the business must be below Canal St. on a street closed by a public construction project. The business must have fewer than 50 employees and demonstrate a loss of revenue. Eligible businesses will receive $2.50 per square foot per month affected by construction, up to $25,000. Several businesses will max out this summer, though construction Downtown is not about to end anytime soon. The L.M.D.C. is taking applications until April 2011, unless the funding runs out sooner.
One of the recent victims of the construction is the Strand Annex at Fulton and William Sts. The used bookstore recently announced the annex would close at the end of the summer because of decreasing foot traffic and a steep rent increase. The Strand was too large a business to apply for the L.M.D.C. grant.
Charles Drago, who owns Shoetrician Shoe Repair on Fulton St. between Nassau and William Sts., is one of the 23 business owners caught in limbo while he waits for the L.M.D.C. to approve his grant application.
“I’m trying to dot all my ‘i’s and cross all my ‘t’s, but it seems like no matter what I do, I’m missing something,” he said.
Drago applied for the grant three months ago after hearing about it from other shoemakers. He estimates that his sales are down 15 percent since the construction on Fulton St. started. The general economic downturn, though, is helping him, since people are more likely to repair their shoes rather than buy new ones, he said.
Drago’s grandfather started a shoe repair business in 1908 and ultimately had 50 stores around the city. Several family members have since taken over the business, and Drago now owns three stores, including the one on Fulton St. that he opened in 1984. Small chains like Drago’s are eligible for the grant, provided they have only 50 or fewer employees.
On a recent afternoon, Luis Herrera, the store manager, said it was hard to attract business. Few people brave the construction-swamped street, and those that do miss the storefront behind the tall plywood boards that mark the construction site.
“Lunchtime was busy,” Herrera said, gesturing around his shop, which was nearly empty. “Now? Forget about it.”
For businesses on Fulton St., true relief will not come until November 2009, which the city finishes replacing the 150-year-old water main beneath the street. While the street is open, the city is also replacing the sewers and rainwater catch basins, along with other utilities, said Matthew Monahan, spokesperson for the city Department of Design and Construction.
“We want to do it right, do it once, and not have to come back for many years,” Monahan said.
To keep the project on schedule, the workers are doing double shifts from 7 a.m. to midnight on weekdays and a single shift from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays, Monahan said. But they can’t work fast enough to satisfy the small business owners whose livelihoods hang in the balance.
“It’s the same thing, but even worse,” said Alexander Portnoy, who first spoke to Downtown Express in February. He owns a hardware store on Fulton St. and is frustrated by the lack of progress he sees on the gaping hole in front of his store. Construction workers are using the space to store their equipment, not to work on the water main, he said.
Monahan, of D.D.C., said the city tries to do one project at a time along the entire length of the main, rather than working block by block. That means one area could appear inactive while crews work on other parts of the street.
Portnoy was considering applying for the L.M.D.C. program, but other small business owners told him the application was long and complicated and no one from the L.M.D.C. returned their calls. They also told him they had not received any money.
“I have no time to do that,” Portnoy said.