With the help of documentary filmmaker Robert LoScalzo, they launched a new Facebook page, video and social media campaign to share their stories. Thirty of the roughly 100 local businesses participated in the six-minute feature.
“The men and women who operate businesses here have family heritages from all around the globe,” LoScalzo said, “exemplifying the diversity of the borough of Queens.”
Last Tuesday, they were joined by State Senator Tony Avella to announce the “Willets Point: Open for Business” campaign. Avella, a longtime supporter of businesses in the area, said the neglect, which include uneven roads, foul smells and the lack of a sewer system, falls squarely on the city.
“It’s not the fault of these businesses,” he said. “It’s the fault of the city, which never paid attention up until the time the city wanted to take the property to help mega-millionaire developers.
“They’re still operating, they still employ people in the community,” Avella added. “They’re still viable, even if the city doesn’t pay the proper attention to them.”
The businesses consist primarily of automotive service shops, but also include larger longtime companies, such as a company that recycles sawdust into animal bedding that has been around since 1933.
“This is the only area in the whole borough of Queens where you can go and pick up what you need in terms of auto repair parts,” Avella said. “They all compliment each other.”
Sam Sambucci, owner of A&D Used Auto Parts and Cars, came up with the idea to put Willets Point on the digital map. He also touted the diversity of the neighborhood, calling the area “quintessential New York.”
The third-generation Willets Point business owner said he recently met with city agencies, including the Economic Development Corporation, to share some of the shop owners’ concerns, mainly repaving the bumpy roads.
“They’ve showed interest in trying to work with some business owners down here and help us while we’re still here,” he said.
In a statement, EDC spokesman Anthony Hogrebe said they’re coordinating with the Department of Transportation (DOT) to evaluate “potential ways to address those requests.”
“We were happy to meet with local business owners in Willets Point, and heard their requests around improved road conditions,” Hogrebe said.
The 62 acres that make up Willets Point have been divided since the city purchased a portion of it to be developed several years ago. The city evicted many of the businesses in the “Phase One” site, and offered to relocate others to the Bronx.
The land now lays vacant and fenced off.
The city, along with the Queens Development Group, which includes the owners of the New York Mets, proposed building a mall in what is now the parking lot for Citi Field.
Avella, local civic groups and park preservations fought the plan and brought it to court. In June, the New York State Court of Appeals denied the plan because the property is technically parkland. The court determined that the city would need state approval first.
City officials are now mulling over what to do next with development plans, which they tied to the remediation of the Iron Triangle area of Willets Point. Their priorities remain affordable housing, schools, libraries, retail and open space, a city representative previously said.
A City Council race to replace outgoing Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras-Copeland may determine the future of Willets Point. Two canidates, Assemblyman Francisco Moya and former councilman Hiram Monserrate, have proposed plans centered on 100 percent affordable housing.
In the meantime, the business owners left at Willets Point are asking for more while they await their future. Vijay Mankotia, owner of V.I.P. Tire Shop, has run his shop for two decades. He said since the city demolished the Phase One site, business has slowed down.
“People see the big machines, the demolition of the buildings. People come to Roosevelt, they look at it, they go back,” he said. “People are thinking Willets Point is closed, no more business, so people don’t come.
“The roads are the problem,” Mankotia added. “If there’s a nice road, everything is perfect.”
Sambucci said that businesses were affected when the city blocked off some streets leading to the Willets Point shops.
“There’s only one main road coming here,” he said. “We understand it’s an industrial area, however there are viable businesses and we should have services.”
Waiss Mohibi, who owned a muffler shop in the Phase One area, said the city’s development plan for the area has failed.
“A lot of people lost their businesses and they couldn’t open anywhere, especially in Queens,” he said. “The land is empty, they demolished it, and they have no idea in the future what they have to do. That’s the saddest part.”
Avella further criticized the years-long saga as “one of the worst projects the city has ever done.”
“They have no idea what they’re doing,” said Avella. “It’s going to be years before they even get a shovel in the ground for Phase One, much less Phase Two.”
Whether they’re eventually relocated or not, Willets Point business owners still want customers to know that they’re open for business.
“You need something in auto body repair?” Avella said. “They’re still here.”