Thursday, March 11, 2010

Austin Street Businesses Report Mixed Outlook

Parking, Rents, Ticket Agents Remain Top Concerns

By Conor Greene

Small business owners along Austin Street have differing opinions about the state of the nation’s economic recovery. However, one thing is clear – local issues such as parking and rents continue to play a huge role in the success or failure of the neighborhood’s mom and pop stores.

During an informal tour of stores on Monday led by Rep. Anthony Weiner, merchants provided mixed reactions to the current economic climate along one of the borough’s most popular shopping strips. While some, such as Marie Sinanian of jewelry store Stoa, say business is as bad as it has ever been, others, such as Marc Pine of Instant Replay secondhand store, say the economy has actually helped his business.

However, most agree that while the jobs bill currently being debated in Washington would help small businesses, it is often local issues such as parking, foot traffic and rent prices that make or break local mom and pop style stores.

Sinanian, who has owned Stoa for 43 years in the area, including the past 15 on Austin Street, said business has been “awful, just awful,” adding that it is worse than last year. “Is there any way you people can tell some property owners to do something with lowering the rents?” she wondered, hitting on a common theme heard along the strip.

Sinanian also said that overzealous traffic agents cause some customers to vow to never return to Austin Street after receiving parking tickets. In one case, a woman bought a $65 item, only to find a $35 ticket on her windshield.

“There really is a sense among most shop owners along Austin Street that their only connection to city government is the traffic police,” said Weiner, comparing the unit to a SWAT team.

A few doors down, the owner of Dmitry Italian Silk Ties said he was recently forced to close his Manhattan location as a result of the economy, but chose to keep his Austin Street location open. “Obviously, there has been a little bit of a slowdown, [so] we’re trying to adjust,” he said.

While online sales have helped fill the gap, Dmitry said that the $1,000 tax credit that the $15 billion jobs bill would provide wouldn’t be enough to allow him to hire another employee. In addition, he said a row of empty storefronts that have been vacant due to a high asking price have reduced the amount of foot traffic that eaches his business.

The economy has had the opposite impact on Instant Replay, where owner Marc Pine says people have turned to second hand items to save money. In addition, many people are selling antiques and other valuables they normally would hold onto. While foot traffic has stayed pretty consistent, some new businesses seemed to be doomed by high rent prices, added Pine.

New York Diamond Boutique opened its doors just two years ago, prompting manager Michael Jaye to joke, “we like challenges, that’s for sure.” Still, by making customer service and quality merchandise top priorities, the store “is holding its own” and is even looking for a new employee, said Jaye. “Ever since Christmas, we’ve seen a greater influx of people coming through the door and being serious about shopping.”

Still, Jaye echoed other complaints about parking, and suggested that Austin Street become a one-way stretch to accommodate diagonal parking. Weiner said that would be tough to do because of the lack of parallel roads to accommodate the diverted traffic.

During the tour, Weiner spoke about the jobs bill, which the Senate has yet to pass. “I don’t think you are going to have a moment when the skies part” and the economy is fixed, he said. Instead, “little by little, bit by bit, people being more confident about the future of the economy” will lead to jobs creation. “What’s going to drive hiring is business coming back, but if they’re right on the bubble it gives them a push,” he said of the $1,000 tax credit the proposed bill would provide businesses for hiring.

On the topic of sky-high rents, Weiner said that ideally, “the wisdom of the marketplace” would solve these problems without government intervention. Still, “it’s very frustrating as a resident” to have storefronts sit vacant for months while the landlord holds out. “The further away the landlord [lives], the more difficult it seems to be to persuade him to take a deal that might not be perfect. Holding out for the perfect deal means creating a very bad economic environment for our stores.”

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