Thursday, July 22, 2010

Tough Times Lead to Vacant Storefronts

By Tamara Best

Since the economic downturn began, “for rent” and “for sale” signs have become more common as small business owners close their doors. Jamaica Avenue, one of the main streets for commerce throughout Queens, has been hit especially hard. According to a new study, one in five stores on the avenue—Woodhaven’s commercial hub—are vacant.

The study, conducted by Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-Forest Hills), looked at 10 of the busiest streets in different areas of the borough. On average, the borough had a vacancy rate of 12 percent. Areas from the survey included portions of Woodhaven Boulevard in Rego Park, Jamaica Avenue in Woodhaven, Austin Street in Forest Hills and Myrtle Avenue in Glendale. The vacancy rates in Glendale and Forest Hills were among the lowest, at eight percent and seven percent respectively.

“Small businesses are the backbone of New York City’s economy, and they have borne the brunt of our nation’s recent downturn,” Weiner said.

According to the study, a total of 206 storefronts were closed of the 1,716 surveyed, with 73 stores vacant on Jamaica Avenue alone. (See sidebar for statistics on the other areas surveyed). Other neighborhoods surveyed included Rockaway, Astoria, Flushing, Bayside, Jamaica and Sunnyside.

Seth Bornstein, executive director of the Queens Economic Development Center, said that the lack of access to resources can hinder business on major commercial strips.

“With the economy, it affects all parts of business so people are hesitant to start businesses because they can’t get the capital,” he said. “Small businesses need improved access to capital in addition to counseling.”

However, he noted that despite the vacancies, the local economy remains solid.

“The overall economy in Queens is relatively stable,” he said. “There has been growth in immigrant communities and we believe that small business can compete with the proper access.”

Bornstein said that in tough economic times, landlords must also change the way they rent space to tenants.

“Some landlords hold out, thinking they will get top dollar,” he said. “A smart landlord doesn’t keep a space vacant for a year— it’s bad for everybody for when businesses come in and out.”

Bornstein said landlords need to be more realistic about what they can get for their property and focus on finding tenants with good credit and a solid plan to grow their business.

Maria Thomson, executive director of the Greater Woodhaven Development Corporation and the Woodhaven Business Improvement District, said that business owners that can afford it should think beyond renting.

“There’s nothing like owning your own building because you don’t have to worry about the rent as much,” she said, adding that the current economic downturn could allow potential owners to buy property at a reduced value. “A lot of people in Woodhaven have sustained themselves that way.”

Thomson said it is also important for local business associations to promote their commercial strip as being vital to economic prosperity during and after the recession.

Weiner said that, “helping small business owners get back on their feet should be our number one priority.”

In an effort to help small businesses recover, Weiner is proposing a five point plan: tax breaks for small businesses that offer health insurance, tax breaks for new hires, greater access to capital small business loans, a five minute grace period for drivers with an expired parking meter and a mobile van to handle permit violations.

Thomson also said that residents purchasing goods in their neighborhood can help more businesses stay open.

“Stay local, the shopping is more personal,” she said. “That way your avenue and your community will flourish.”

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