By Carlina Rivera and Jennifer Sun
When Tamika Gabaroum decided she finally wanted to open her restaurant, Green Garden in the East Village, she understood it wouldn’t be an easy task. But Tamika, a former public health advocate with the Peace Corps who served in UN Peacekeeping Missions in the Democratic Republic of Congo, was used to a challenge. What she couldn’t expect was her landlord, Raphael Toledano, disappearing months after signing her lease, and a new landlord arriving with demands of higher rent. And she could have never guessed that Toledano had harassed the previous long-time tenants out of their stores as well.
The challenges facing Tamika and other small business owners in New York City are well known. Rising commercial rents, competition from corporate franchises, and the growth of online shopping have forced an alarming number of mom and pop stores to close their doors.
In many community districts, vacant storefronts have become a common sight, turning once-thriving retail corridors into ghost towns. When a small business closes, it is not only a loss for their neighborhood’s local economy, but also for its vibrancy and character.
If we want to create an environment in which small businesses can thrive, we need to provide owners and entrepreneurs with a suite of tools that give them an equal footing in our economy.
Information, data, and education are all a part of the equation. The city’s Department of Small Business Services (SBS) must continually move beyond its role as an outreach-based agency and work in partnership with local CBO’s to provide small businesses with more tangible services. That is why we pushed for the passage and enactment of a City Council package of legislation that finally requires SBS to complete an assessment of each neighborhood’s small business economy, determine how many vacant storefronts exist citywide, and provide small businesses with training programs that include a comprehensive web platform that provides clear direction on best operating practices and regulatory compliance.
But knowledge can only take an entrepreneur so far. The City Council has made progress by making resources more readily available to small business owners, and in District 2 we have taken this a step forward by assembling a unique partnership between government and community advocates to create a pioneering loan program called the East Village Small Business Revitalization Fund.
Announced in August and run by Renaissance EDC, an affiliate of Asian Americans for Equality, the loan will provide East Village business owners with the opportunity to borrow up to $50,000 with fixed interest rates dramatically lower than most business owners could secure through traditional lenders.
These loans can go towards restocking inventory, purchasing new equipment or furniture, marketing, storefront improvements or renovations, payroll, and many other typical high cost capital needs. And most importantly, Renaissance will work with owners to analyze business plans, strategize on goals, and obtain in-house training on the latest retail tools.
This model of protecting and cultivating local companies is what our city and state Economic Development Corporations should be pursuing, instead of chasing large corporations that will only starve out mom-and-pops further.
And in the fight against these multinational corporations, we are developing our own homegrown apps to connect local shoppers with local enterprises. Village Alliance, a local Business Improvement District, is launching an app that connects residents with exclusive sales and information about local small businesses.
Alone, each of these tools may not save a business. But together, this multi-pronged approach provides a mom-and-pop with the community support they need throughout the life of a business. And we need these stores and restaurants to survive. They are essential parts of the local economy and the lifeblood of our communities. They make New York City neighborhoods unique, like no other in the world. And if we don’t continue fighting to spread these tools citywide, our communities will be left to a dreary future of corporate franchises and vacant storefronts.
Carlina Rivera is a New York City Council Member representing District 2. Jennifer Sun is the Co-Executive Director for Asian Americans For Equality.