West Beech Street a symbol of Long Beach recovery

Gregg Lapenna, 43, co-owner of The Whale's Tale, Gregg Lapenna, 43, co-owner of The Whale's Tale, a sports bar on West Beech Street in Long Beach. (Feb. 1, 2013) Photo Credit: Steve Pfost

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Long Beach's West Beech Street, a busy business strip near the sand and surf in this city of more than 33,000, remains a landscape of tattered shops that symbolizes the community's long road to recovery from Sandy.

Many of the more than 50 businesses, including burger and pizza joints, grocery stores, hair salons, restaurants and bars in block after block close to the famed boardwalk, are struggling to recover from water damage and the loss of customers.

Shop windows are covered with plywood or paper. A few facades show nothing but gutted storefronts. Others display signs announcing they've temporarily relocated. Some promise they will open again. Soon.

Businesses that have reopened, after clearing away damage from 3 to 4 feet of saltwater, are largely deserted as owners and clerks wait for customers who haven't returned to the battered community.

"It's been a nightmare. A nightmare, you hear me?" said Gregg Lapenna, 43, co-owner of The Whale's Tale, a sports bar. The Long Beach native swung a large mop back and forth across the tiled floor on a recent afternoon. He was reopening after three months of paying rent without income.

"My house is totaled, and I need the business to be back," Lapenna said.

A complicated comeback

The return of the once-vibrant business area is complicated by several factors. These include the lack of adequate insurance coverage by small businesses, the unavailability of direct federal grants and delays in qualifying for low-interest loans. Also there are the ravaged houses of residents who make up the customer base outside the summer months and the prospect of a slower summer season without a fully restored boardwalk.

The damage is widespread, with close to half of the Long Beach Chamber of Commerce's more than 300 members estimated to be doing cleanup and repairs, some working from temporary locations, or staying shuttered as of the beginning of February, said Mark Tannenbaum, the chamber's executive vice president.

Economists said the loss of a huge swath of businesses hurts the community and, by extension, the region, because small businesses are the bread and butter of the Long Island economy.

"It will be a drag on the area, and it has wider implications," said Martin Melkonian, an economics professor at Hofstra University. "The Island is a place of small businesses . . . and when small businesses are hurt, you have significant effects."

The storm aftermath compounds the fiscal problems of a city recovering from a budget shortfall. The current administration embarked on a three-year plan to close a $10-million deficit when it took office in 2012. It had cut expenses and reduced personnel to balance the budget.  Then Sandy hit.

City counts its losses

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City of Long Beach Comptroller Jeff Nogid said the municipality is preparing for a dip in sales taxes and lower commercial property tax revenue. He is unable to estimate the loss until the city knows the long-term reduction in sales, the assessed valuations of damaged properties and how much emergency funding it will receive.

Nogid said the city is working on projections that would fall short of the $2.5 million in sales taxes in the current $87-million budget and may have to borrow to cover the shortfall.

"We are looking at various projections . . . and we're adjusting our revenues down for the fiscal year," Nogid said.

Sandy "will definitely shrink the business community in Long Beach," Tannenbaum said.

The chamber, he said, will cut and delay annual dues this year as its members regain their footing.

"A lot are waiting for money, either from Sandy aid or loans. Some got insurance money, but not much," Tannenbaum said.

Some relief may be on the way, with city officials hoping to get a piece of the aid package recently approved by Congress. The specifics will depend on how much of the funds are already committed and how the remainder is split among New York, New Jersey and other affected areas.

"We need money to flow right away to assist us in repairing our critical infrastructure," Scott J. Mandel, president of Long Beach's City Council, said in a statement. "We need money to flow to help residents rebuild their homes, and we need money to flow to aid our businesses."

Borrowed time and money

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is encouraging more small businesses to apply for $25,000 loans through the New York State Empire State Development agency, said a spokesman.

The difficulties faced by Long Beach are common to businesses in summer resorts all along the East Coast, said Jack Mozloom, spokesman for the National Federation of Independent Business, a group in Washington, D.C., that advocates for small businesses.

"It's a very small window to get their businesses up and open for the summer season . . . the make-or-break season for them," Mozloom said.

But the business community isn't giving up. Delivery trucks came and went along Park Avenue and West Beech Street on a recent afternoon, as workers reinstalled wiring and plasterboard and painted at many of the closed stores.

Lapenna said he did not get insurance money because, despite paying more than $12,000 in yearly premiums, his business was not covered for floods. He said he had received $25,000 in a low-interest loan as part of nearly $2.2 million disbursed to businesses, many on Long Island, through the New York State Small Business Emergency Loan Fund.

But like several other business owners along West Beech, he said he had not heard from the federal Small Business Administration.

"Can you fight to get open? Yes," Lapenna said. "But you are borrowing money to get back and there's nobody here, so you don't know how much longer you'll hold on."

J. Ramdayal stood looking out by the door of his Alabama Deli, the store stocked and open, but without many customers.

He opened the day after the storm, worked to get the water out, throw out damaged merchandise and repair the refrigerators. He had to rely on savings and loans from family and friends to get it all done. So far, SBA loans haven't materialized, he said.

"We applied in November, and you get a different person every time you call," Ramdayal said. "If we were waiting on that or any other government help, we would be out of business."

Of 15,877 loan applications issued by the agency in Long Beach, 3,548 had been approved as of Feb. 1. Statewide, a total of 510 businesses have received more than $53 million in loans to date, officials said.

Michael B. Peacock, an SBA spokesman, said in a statement that the agency "is making every effort to respond to applicants and process applications in a timely manner."

While more federal funds are on the way, they are for "individuals, homeowners and residents whose primary residences were damaged" and are not designated for businesses, which are encouraged to carry flood insurance, said John Mills, spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Long Island.

Long way from normal

Even for owners like Kwang Soo Song, who had flood insurance, business has not returned to normal.

Instead of the customers who used to line up at his Long Beach Valet Cleaners with their dry cleaning before going to work, he tended to two customers on a recent morning.

There were still marks where the water level rose to 36 inches on a mirrored wall by the front of his shop. He has paid $7,500 for customers' water-damaged clothing but is waiting for insurance claim funds worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. He was also waiting for an SBA loan decision.

"I'm not worried," he said. "It's not helpful for life."

A message outside Shine's bar, down the block from Song's store, reflected resiliency.

The wooden sign, placed near an American flag, read: "BRUISED, BUT NOT BROKEN."

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