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Downtowns Deflated: Small businesses vs. COVID-19

Mayor of Southampton Jesse Warren discusses the economic impact coronavirus may have on Southampton businesses if closures remain in effect through the usually busy summer season. Credit: Newsday / Shelby Knowles, Vera Chinese

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.

“Certainly, Riverhead was open for business,” said Councilwoman Catherine Kent, liaison to the downtown revitalization committee. “When we get past this we will hit the ground running.”

Here is what business owners and local leaders told Newsday about their fight to survive COVID-19: 

RIVERHEAD: ‘It’s no income, only bills’

Long-stalled revitalization efforts of the 1-mile-long historic downtown where the North and South forks meet were on a positive trajectory before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, officials said.

More than 100 apartment units have been built in the past decade, a 116-unit building is under construction and new restaurants and a boutique hotel have opened in recent years. Local attractions include the Long Island Aquarium, Suffolk Theater and a weekly indoor farmers market. Still, vacant storefronts have abounded for decades on Main Street.

Workers from the nearby Suffolk County court complex and state Supreme Court typically fill downtown eateries during the workweek. With nearby courts, schools and businesses closed, downtown restaurants are taking a hit during lunchtime.

The Riverhead Business Improvement District has organized a fundraiser that supports both local businesses and workers at Peconic Bay Medical Center in Riverhead. With every $5,000 raised, the BID will purchase $50 gift cards to downtown restaurants. The gift cards will then be distributed to hospital staff through a raffle. Donations can be made through the Northwell Health website.

The Long Island Aquarium is soliciting donations through GoFundMe to fund animal care while the facility is closed.

Kent said that before the pandemic arrived, the town was moving toward a health and wellness theme with its bike shops and farm-to-table restaurants and should look to build on that image.

“We’d like to create a downtown that’s a place to heal your mind, body and soul,” she said. “I think we were on a good path and I think we will continue on that path.”

Cucina 25

EMPLOYEES: 7

LAYOFFS: 6

REVENUE: Down about 20%

Sean Kenna, co-owner of the pizzeria on West Main Street, said takeout will keep that business afloat and that food purchased for medical workers has been a boon. Kenna and his partner, Robert Manolio, have had to temporarily close Craft’d, a nearby bar and grill the pair opened last fall. They were turned down for a Small Business Administration loan through one provider and have reapplied through another bank, Kenna said.

The community has rallied around the pizzeria, which in turn has donated to workers at Peconic Bay Medical Center.

“The pizzeria is doing OK because we already offered takeout and delivery,” Kenna said. But the other business [Craft’d] has been “weeks of nothing.”

“It’s no income, only bills,” he said.

SOUTHAMPTON: ‘We’re going to lose the season here’

Southampton’s Main Street is filled with cafes, upscale boutiques and high-end real estate offices. Key draws are Southampton Arts Center, Lake Agawam and its surrounding park, and of course, ocean beaches perennially ranked among the best in the world. With its multimillion-dollar oceanfront homes and palatial estates, Southampton has some of the most expensive residential real estate in the country. 

The downtown’s wealthy clientele did not make it immune to the challenges faced by downtowns across America. High rents, competition from online retailers and a seasonal population have made for several empty storefronts, especially on Jobs Lane, perpendicular to Main Street, said Mayor Jesse Warren.

Warren, elected in June 2019, ran on a campaign of revitalizing Main Street and seeking studies and grants for municipal wastewater treatment, which would allow for more restaurants.

Merchants are worried about how the situation will evolve and what the state of the village will be by Memorial Day, typically the start of the South Fork summer season.

“Make no mistake, the businesses are hurting,” said Warren, who owns the lifestyle boutique Tenet, with shops in Southampton as well as East Hampton village. “It’s going to be worse if we’re not back open to business by the summer.”

Warren said that much of the year-round population works in the service industry and is dependent on tips.

“People think of the Hamptons as what they see in the movies or TV,” he said. “We’re just like the rest of the country.”

Sisal Rugs Wholesale

EMPLOYEES: 5

LAYOFFS: 3

REVENUE: Projected 70%-80% loss through summer season

William Matuska has owned Sisal Rugs Wholesale, with a showroom on Jobs Lane and a warehouse on David Whites Lane, for the past eight years. Businesses like Sisal, which offers high-end and imported area rugs and runners to the Hamptons clientele, typically do most of their sales in about seven or eight months out of the year. That carries them through winter, Matuska said.

He is now saving as much as he can while bracing for a forfeited 2020 Hamptons summer.

“I’m pretty sure that we’re going to lose the season here,” Matuska said.

The biggest disappointment, he said, has been the lack of clarity and direction in applying for assistance from the Small Business Administration. He has applied for both an Economic Injury Disaster Loan and Payroll Protection Plan loan and is awaiting an answer, he said.

Matuska kept two of his five workers on and can continue some orders and warehouse work, but estimated he could take a 70% to 80% revenue hit this season.

“They’re my friends, they’re my family,” he said of his staff. “But at the same time, we have another month coming up when we have X amount of dollars due in rent.”

PORT WASHINGTON: ‘There’s a lot of people hurting’

Port Washington residents said the draw of their town is more than just good schools and an easy commute into Manhattan — it’s also the small community feel.

Decades ago, nearly every resident owned a pair of ice skates, and during the winter they would check daily to see whether Mill Pond was suitable for skating, said North Hempstead Town Councilwoman Mariann Dalimonte, a fourth-generation resident.

“I get that Norman Rockwell feeling from Port Washington,” Dalimonte said as she helped a duck cross Main Street.

Port Washington is a destination rather than a drive-thru town for travelers. Once famous for its sand mining operations, Port Washington is now known for its mix of four dozen restaurants and shops as well as its marinas and water views.

Amid the pandemic, fewer New York City commuters means far less foot traffic downtown, said Bobbie Polay, executive director of the chamber of commerce.

“Most stores are closed and the essential businesses that remain open have had to furlough or lay off their employees,” she said.

Nonessential businesses that have closed are seeing revenue losses, while the community has rallied around eateries that are struggling with declining sales.

A Facebook page has been created to facilitate food donations for medical workers. The money is used to buy food from local businesses that is delivered to staff on the front lines. 

Dalimonte said merchants will need community support to thrive when the pandemic is over. 

“It’s so important to shop local,” she said. “It’s very easy to sit on your computer in your sweatpants and buy things online, but zero percent of that is going back into your community.”

S.F. Falconer Florist

EMPLOYEES: 10

LAYOFFS: 10

REVENUE: Down 90%

“The business was fairly healthy here,” said Fred Falconer, owner of the S.F. Falconer Florist shop, which has stood since 1924 but has been closed since March 22. “It was a really busy town. Hopefully we are going to come back.”

To do that, Falconer said, reinforcements will be needed.

“We are going to need, I hate to say it, assistance,” he said, adding that he has applied for an SBA loan. “There’s a lot of people hurting. My business and my property here are my retirement. It’s very scary right now.”

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