Volume 22, Number 36 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | January 15 - 21, 2010

Downtown Express photo by Julie Shapiro
Downtown construction has affected many streets, but most small businesses surveyed by a Pace University class said they did not know they were eligible for assistance from the Lower Manhattan Development Corp.

Survey finds business program hard to find

By Julie Shapiro

Nearly two years after the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. launched a program to help small businesses, an informal survey found that only one in three eligible businesses had heard of the program.

The anecdotal data, collected by Pace University students, caused local community activists to renew their calls for improvements to the program.

“This is a very serious problem of communication that needs to be addressed,” said Ro Sheffe, chairperson of Community Board 1’s Financial District Committee. “We need more outreach by the L.M.D.C.”

The L.M.D.C.’s Small Firm Assistance Program has given $2.3 million to 135 businesses below Canal St. since 2008. To be eligible for a grant of up to $25,000, businesses must have 50 or fewer employees and be on or near a block closed by public construction.

Over the past year, Sheffe repeatedly raised his concern that eligible businesses did not know about the program. He said he talked to at least half a dozen business owners in the Financial District who were struggling and could have used the money but had not been told about the grants.

Sheffe’s concerns gave Michael Levine, a C.B. 1 staff member and a Pace University professor, an idea: Perhaps the students in his introductory urban planning class could survey Downtown businesses and find out if Sheffe’s perception was a reality.

The students spoke to owners or managers of 76 eligible businesses last fall, and 50 of them had not heard of the program. Of the 26 who had heard of the program, 11 heard directly from the L.M.D.C. while the rest heard through advertising, word of mouth and other groups, the students said.

Fred Wolf, a senior at Pace, said the L.M.D.C. should do more outreach and advertising. He also suggested that the L.M.D.C. update its Web site more frequently with a list of eligible blocks. Over the past year, the online list has often gone two months or more without being updated while construction in Lower Manhattan can change streets day to day.

Errol Cockfield, L.M.D.C. spokesperson, said in an e-mail that the L.M.D.C. had visited at least 320 businesses on 50 canvassing trips to give them information about the grants, and that a full-time staff member is dedicated to the program.

“We’ve repeatedly sent out staff to tell merchants about the program and we will do it again,” Cockfield told C.B. 1’s World Trade Center Committee Monday night, after hearing a presentation from the students. “If there is an opportunity to make improvements, we want to do that.”

While the survey is not scientific, Levine said it provides solid anecdotal evidence that many Lower Manhattan business owners do not know about the program.

One such owner is Mark Mozaffari, who owns the Trilogy Photo Lab on Chambers St. His block was affected by city street reconstruction in 2008 and will get hit again once the Chambers water main project starts later this year. Mozaffari said he would have been happy to apply for a grant if he had known about the opportunity.

“I borrowed money the last three years to stay in business,” Mozaffari said. “It’s not that easy.”

Steve Ullman, owner of Dick’s Hardware on Gold St., said he recently heard about the L.M.D.C. grant program from a neighboring store and received some money, but he wished he’d found out earlier. He was not surprised to hear the results of the Pace study.

“That just shows how the city does business — they’re not going to tell you anything,” Ullman said. “Unless you have contacts, you’re not going to know anything.”

The L.M.D.C. is actually a subsidiary of the state, not the city, though the mayor appoints half of the board members.

Several businesses on Fulton St. who spoke to Downtown Express were more aware of the grant program and remembered L.M.D.C. workers coming in to tell them about it. Alex Portnoy, owner of the Fulton Supply hardware shop, said it was impossible to miss the big news conference on Fulton St. that former Gov. Eliot Spitzer held to announce the program in 2008, just before he left office.

“They were very helpful,” Portnoy said of the L.M.D.C.

After initial complaints that the applications were too hard to fill out, the L.M.D.C. simplified them about a year ago. However, the Pace students said some business owners still found it hard to understand the forms.

The $5 million L.M.D.C. grant program will sunset at the end of 2010, even if some of the money remains unspent. Sheffe hopes to convince the L.M.D.C. to extend the program and possibly add more of its remaining money to it, as construction Downtown is nowhere near over.

Sheffe also wants the L.M.D.C. to expand the program to merchants above the first floor of buildings, since the street closures affect them as well.

Joel Kopel, a community board member who manages William Barthman Jewelers, has also long pushed the L.M.D.C. to make changes to the program. He wanted the L.M.D.C. to raise the cap on how much each business can receive, since $25,000 doesn’t go very far in the face of Downtown’s high rents.

Cockfield declined to comment on any specific changes to the grant program.


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