Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Foreboding Small Business View From Queens

The NY Times takes an in-depth look at the plight of neighborhood small business at 30th Avenue in Astoria, Queens-and. as you might expect it's not a really pretty picture: "And so this small commercial stretch — eight blocks of 30th Avenue bracketed by 31st Street and Steinway Street — is a microcosm of how small businesses are faring as the economy flails. A street that has long been an incubator of financial hopes and aspirations for waves of immigrants has fallen victim to high rents and disappearing customers."

But, as the Times points out, the hardy nature of small entrepreneurs persists even in these hard times: "But this strip also has a resilient streak, a history of newcomers arriving with an entrepreneurial spirit willing to work hard and take a chance. Wall Street might be the economic lifeblood of New York City, but it is small businesses, places with 100 workers or less, that are the city’s backbone, accounting for 98 percent of its nearly 233,000 companies, according to the state’s Department of Labor. Even at the height of the recession in 2008, small businesses provided nearly half of all private-sector jobs available in the city, more than they did in 1990, according to results from a study to be released by the Center for an Urban Future, a research institute."

All of which underscores why it is so important for the City of New York to pay close attention to those policies that can exacerbate the plight of small business in these challenging economic times-and to look for ways to be proactive on behalf of smaller firms. And, overall, things are not good in the neighborhood: "Still, the struggles of neighborhood businesses are underscored by persistently high retail vacancy rates. Nowhere is the problem more pronounced than in Queens, which logged a vacancy rate of nearly 14 percent in the second quarter of this year, the highest in the city, according to Marcus & Millichap, a national brokerage firm. Manhattan had the lowest vacancy rate, about 7 percent. A survey this summer by Congressman Anthony D. Weiner painted a dismal picture in several shopping districts in Queens, finding more than one in 5 stores closed along a busy stretch of Jamaica Avenue that runs through Richmond Hill and Woodhaven and one in 10 stores closed in Glendale. On Woodhaven Boulevard in Rego Park, almost 20 percent of storefronts were closed."

Congressman Weiner, echoing our own position on the importance of small, locally owned businesses for the economic health of the city, makes this telling point: “This is more than an economic indicator,” Mr. Weiner, a Democrat who represents Queens and Brooklyn, said in an interview. “It’s a sort of psychic barometer of a community.”

Indeed it is, and the view from the outer boroughs throws a bit of cold water on Greg David's rosier view of the city's job picture: "The story is very different in New York, where the best estimate is that the city will gain 80,000 jobs this year, according to Eastern Consolidated, which tracks the city's job market. That's exactly half of those lost in New York City during the Great Recession That Wasn't. (I think the number could be even higher, but we will see)."

And we'd like to see a breakdown on where exactly those new jobs are coming from-and where they aren't, since the small business foreclosure and vacancy rates are less than comforting; and the Times makes the case: "In Astoria, about 30 mom-and-pop stores along 30th Avenue have gone out of business in the past two years in what has been of the most unforgiving financial times for a strip that has experienced booms and busts ever since Greeks and Italians arrived at the turn of the last century and opened butcher shops and salumerias that sold pancetta, orzo and racks of lamb."

This is the context in which to view the possible Wal-Mart invasion into NYC-and any evaluation of the impact of Big Wally needs to consider how it will further exacerbate the recessionary struggles of the city's immigrant entrepreneurs. The Walmartization of NY has the potential to mortally wound-and even kill off-the immigrant incubator phenomenon that has made this city so interesting and diverse.

Another reason to weigh the Walmonster's collateral damages very, very carefully.