By Maria Rocha-Buschel
Owners of small businesses in the East Village gathered on Tuesday at Jimmy’s No. 43 bar on East 7th Street for a roundtable discussion that was hosted by Borough President Gale Brewer on the challenges that businesses have been facing. Brewer has faced some criticism lately for not pushing for long-stalled legislation that would protect retailers from exorbitant rent increases, and business owners who were present at the roundtable on Tuesday expressed similar concerns. Owners at the event were enthusiastic about starting a discussion, but said they were frustrated by a range of issues, including endless paperwork from the city whenever they reach out for help.
“The bureaucracy is really hurting us,” one owner said. “When we have to deal with different city agencies, the people in the offices are nice, but there’s so much paperwork that things take forever to get done or don’t get done at all.”
Other businesses have still been struggling to recover from the explosion on Second Avenue this past March. Bernadette Nation, executive director of New York City’s Small Business Services emergency response team, worked in the neighborhood for more than a month and said that it was a struggle for a number of the storefronts near the explosion.
“I was in the city during September 11 but this explosion was a really daunting experience,” she said. “This one was really taxing on the body and the mind.”
She noted that disaster relief for small businesses is a needed service because so many businesses are not able to reopen after such a catastrophe. Jesse Ballan, owner of Café Mocha, was one of the owners who particularly struggled, primarily because he was open every day to provide coffee for the first responders. He was ultimately forced to close for a period but has since reopened, and at the meeting, Nation presented him with a letter of commendation from the Mayor’s office, thanking him for his help following the explosion.
“Jesse was really instrumental in helping the first responders,” she said.
Theatre 80 owner Lorcan Otway said that his family has been in business on St. Mark’s Place for 52 years and even with the neighborhood’s sordid past, it’s the last few years that have been most difficult.
“My mother was robbed at gunpoint in the box office in the 1970s,” he said. “We’ve had other difficulties in the past, but the last four years have been worse.”
Although Otway was one of the few owners at the event who owns the building in which his business is located, he said that the theater still struggles financially, and one of the few suggestions he’s received to mitigate the problem is not something he’s interested in.
“We’ve been told that we should just become a non-profit but I don’t want to do that,” he said. “That puts theater in the hands of the few. I don’t think that’s good for free speech, I don’t think that’s good for art and I don’t think that’s good for the neighborhood.”
When another owner asked what businesses should do to get involved, Brewer suggested that treating some of these small businesses as though they are non-profits would actually be a good place to start.
“We should treat them like non-profits because that’s basically what they are,” she said. “That would be an example of something that we can work on by hammering the city agencies as a community.”
Barbara Feinman, who owns a millinery bearing her name on East 7th Street, said that she’s had her store since 1998 and the building where she’s located was recently sold to a real estate developer. She still has five years left on her lease, but she doesn’t know what will happen to her business once it’s expired.
“None of these other issues matter if we can’t renew our lease,” she said. “After five years, I don’t know what I’m going to do. These are big powers that control our lives.”
Brewer said the timing is good right now to do something about the rent and leasing issues, primarily at the state level through tax breaks.
“You can also work with the community board to make sure that the developer doesn’t get his wishes,” she added. “That would be a zoning approach.”
Ahmed Tigani, a community development officer with Brewer’s office, noted that the borough president and Brooklyn City Councilmember Robert Cornegy are also working to get a bill drafted that would require a nonbinding negotiation and mediation period, with the option of a one-year lease extension with no more than a 15 percent increase.
Although Feinman said that she’s still concerned about the future for her business, she said that she’d feel more secure if small businesses came together, and she thought that the bill was a good start.
“If this bill could go into effect, if all small businesses were protected by it, it wouldn’t just be one person, it would be all of us,” she said. “It would give the situation more fluidity. It would be a shift in power.”