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Downtowns Deflated: Small businesses vs. COVID-19

Farmingdale Chamber of Commerce President Joseph Garci said some local small businesses are still waiting for governmental assistance in hopes of reopening. Credit: Newsday

Closures associated with COVID-19 are threatening the health of Long Island’s many downtowns and the livelihoods of those who own businesses and employ workers there.

The renaissance of once-dormant downtowns has become increasingly important to municipalities that want to attract millennials, young families and retirees to areas with a transportation hub, retail and entertainment options and a vibrant nightlife. Though shopkeepers and restaurateurs express an almost paradoxical optimism that their businesses will survive, the virus is challenging the ability of once-vibrant areas to spring back to life after the pandemic retreats and will make it harder for those languishing or in the midst of revitalization efforts to move forward.

“I think a lot of them [small-business owners] are going to reevaluate whether they should be self-employed any longer,” said Joe Garcia, president of the Farmingdale Chamber of Commerce. “To have the government just come in and tell you you can’t have any revenues anymore is not really something you’re able to plan for.” 

Here is what business owners, local leaders and chamber of commerce officials told Newsday about their fight to survive COVID-19:

BALDWIN: ‘I can’t do it with the strict social distancing’

Baldwin’s downtown is centered around its major thoroughfare of Grand Avenue, with the Long Island Rail Road station just blocks away. Small businesses populate part of the hamlet’s downtown, said Erik Mahler, president of the Baldwin Chamber of Commerce and owner-broker of Mahler Realty. But many storefronts remain empty. Mahler said the downtown has been on the decline for the past 30 years. In 2019, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced a $10 million state grant to redevelop the hamlet’s downtown.

Mahler believes business owners will have to save money to help weather future crises, but he said he is also concerned that because few shops, stores and eateries are open that people will just do everything online and eventually forget about local businesses.

“The Chamber of Commerce is afraid that they will continue because it is easier to go online for a long period of time from today’s date rather than supporting local mom-and-pop businesses,” Mahler said.

Kitty O’Hara’s bar

EMPLOYEES: 9

LAYOFFS: 9 (4 rehired part time)

REVENUE: Down 75%

Shay Leavy, co-owner of Kitty O’Hara’s bar, said that after being open for six years the business developed a steady clientele.

But, in the age of coronavirus, Leavy has had to limit the amount of staff since the bar now offers only takeout Thursday through Sunday, four hours a day.

“We just have a small window of business because we don’t open all day because that’s just not going to be cost-effective,” Leavy said. “The waitresses and the bartenders, they were only part time, but they’re doing one shift a week now, when they might have had two or three or four shifts. We don’t want to close the kitchen totally, so we’ll keep trying to do to-go orders.”

Co-owner Dave Baker said he appreciates clients still coming to keep the business open by buying food and that he hopes to continue the business.

“I can’t do it with the strict social distancing,” Baker said.

FARMINGDALE: ‘I don’t know how many can come back’

In 2009, downtown interest groups, community residents and the board of trustees looked to create a future downtown area, as the village lost traffic to other communities. Today, parts of the village’s downtown include mixed-use buildings and apartments near the heavily traveled Long Island Rail Road line. The village’s Main Street is the poster child for revitalization and transit-oriented development in Nassau County, Mayor Ralph Ekstrand said. 

“It was anything anybody would want it to be from a downtown business standpoint,” said Chamber of Commerce president Joe Garcia, who is also manager of Weichert Realtors. “As of February of this year, most people would consider it to be totally revitalized and pretty well into the overall master plan Farmingdale Village came up with several years ago.”

But the arrival of COVID-19 has changed all that.

“The restaurants that are serving takeout, depending on the restaurant, they’re only doing 15 to 20 percent of their regular business,” Ekstrand said. “They can’t survive on that. We know that. And if they don’t get the money from the federal government, the bailout, I don’t know how many can come back.”

 

The Nutty Irishman bar, 317 Main Street restaurant

EMPLOYEES: 55

LAYOFFS & FURLOUGHS: 50

REVENUE: Down 90%

“Downtown Farmingdale, Main Street was flourishing Friday and Saturday nights,” said Joe Fortuna, owner of The Nutty Irishman bar at 323 Main St. and the restaurant 317 Main Street. “It has become a destination in the past few years.” 

When business returns, Fortuna said he may operate differently. Before the coronavirus pandemic, he said he planned for snow on the weekends or slow periods in general. He said you can’t plan for this. 

“It’s not going to be the same because you have certain built-in expenses based on a certain volume, particularly your rent,” Fortuna said. “When you lease a building, you’re leasing the building based on occupancy. I’m sure there’s going to be certain rules and restrictions for places of public gatherings, and our business models are not built that way.”

EAST HAMPTON VILLAGE: ‘To put people out of work … is devastating’

In East Hampton, the Atlantic Ocean and harbors are prime attractions for summer visitors and year-round residents. Along Main Street, the village’s downtown, there’s a mix of small businesses and high-end stores, some of which don’t open until after April or May, said Deputy Mayor Barbara Borsack.

Steve Haweeli, immediate past president of the East Hampton Chamber of Commerce, said challenges are not unusual for some businesses. 

“The one thing about Hamptons business owners is that they do know how to navigate economic roller coasters and downturns because they have a downturn every year — it’s called Labor Day,” Haweeli said. “After Labor Day, certainly after Columbus Day [in October], a lot of restaurants will just be open four or five nights because … the business doesn’t warrant it.”

Rowdy Hall, Nick & Toni’s, Townline BBQ, Coche Comedor, La Fondita 

EMPLOYEES: 140

LAYOFFS: 103

REVENUE: Down 50%

Mark Smith, who has co-owned Rowdy Hall since 1996, said being a mainstay in the community has been good for business. 

“When you’ve been in a small community like this for 24 years, we’ve had kids whose parents came here before they had them,” Smith said. “They got married, had kids and the kids came here and in some cases, the kids are working for us,” Smith said. “All that means is the birthdays, the anniversaries, the funerals, when you’re sort of in the middle of a small village, you become sort of a community center that happens to serve drinks and food.” 

Smith said some of the more than 100 employees he’s had to let go at the businesses in East Hampton, Sagaponack and Amagansett worked with him for 15 years.

“I spend more time with these people than I do with my biological family,” Smith said. “You develop bonds, a sense of family, your restaurant family. To put people out of work due to no fault of their own, knowing that they depend on their job to support their family, is devastating.”

The Monogram Shop

EMPLOYEES: 3

LAYOFFS: 2

REVENUE: Down 70%

Valerie Smith has co-owned The Monogram Shop since 1997 with daughter Hadley, and said the downtown is quiet during the week except for weekends. That all changes in summer, but maybe not this year because of COVID-19. 

“We have a certain amount of business on the weekends,” she said. “Nothing like the summer months, but we tend to see more people on the weekends during March and April.”

Smith said she applied for the Paycheck Protection Program and also asked her payroll company, ADP, about borrowing options but was told the banks stopped lending after the funds were exhausted. Smith had to lay off two employees.

Smith said she plans to boost her online web presence to have a backstop against future business interruptions.

“We are all in the same situation, restaurants and retail stores and any sort of business,” she said. “We’ve been mandated to shut down. We want to shut down because we want to keep the safety precautions. But we have fixed expenses, and what money you have will slowly, depending on how long this lasts, be depleted.”

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