The elected official took a tour of Forest Hills’ Austin Street shopping district last Wednesday to spread the word about a few good stores and show support for locally owned small businesses.
Led by the Queens Chamber of Commerce and the Forest Hills Chamber of Commerce, the congressman’s tour brought him face to face with a number of small business owners who said that their fiscal fortunes had changed for the worse over the last several months.
“I’m trying to convince people to shop at stores in Queens rather than in Manhattan or online,” said Weiner. “When the national economy catches a cold, small businesses get pneumonia. We need to send a message to shoppers that they should be more open to small businesses, and that if they look in their own neighborhoods, they might just find a jewel of a store.”
“We provide service that you could never get in a mall,” said Ariena Thomsen, owner of Thank Heaven Childrens’ Boutique. “People want nice stores like this.”
Many of the owners of stores on Austin Street admitted to facing hard times, with fewer customers coming to their businesses and those that do spending less.
“Business has been slow over the last two months,” said Michael Voulgaris of the Austin House Diner. “I don’t see a lot of people on the street, and I’m seeing a lot of businesses close. People are losing business. It’s tough for everybody.”
“In the past two weeks, our restaurant has been down $500 a day,” said J.R. Valdez, owner of Latin Cabana. Valdez recently opened a second store at the Queens Center Mall, which he says is doing very well at the same time his flagship store is failing. “Big malls are doing good, while shopping districts are doing badly.”
“For the first few years, my store was doing okay,” said Thomsen. “But these days, when I come to work in the morning, I just feel depressed.”
Another reason Austin Street and other outdoor shopping hubs have seen dwindling customers may be parking. Almost every business owner and customer in the neighborhood has complained about how difficult it is to park on Austin Street, saying that a lack of available street parking combined with overzealous traffic officers have made it tough for many to justify shopping in the area, and the growing number of vacant storefronts is a testament to that fact.
“It’s not worth it for people to come by and get a $3 cup of coffee when they have to risk a $50 parking ticket,” said Valdez. Another storeowner described the strict meter-keeping as “harassment” against both her and her customers.
“It’s a parking ticket tsunami,” said Weiner, who lives close to the shopping district. “It’s wild what’s going on around Austin Street.”
In conjunction with Congresswoman Nydia Velasquez, Weiner released a report indicating that Queens-based businesses borrowed 48 percent less this year than they did in 2007, which is the most significant drop of any borough. According to the congressman, the decrease is an indicator that small businesses in the borough have less expendable capital and confidence in the future.
On his tour, Weiner outlined several policies that he felt could ease the hurt of the economic crisis.
“We need to send a message to the government to be more hospitable to small businesses,” he said.
He called for a stronger small business associations at every level of government and proposed the creation of a website that would direct New Yorkers to stores near where they lived rather than across the city.