Finding solutions to save our small businesses

Photo by Tequila Minsky “Auggie’s,” at 107 Thompson St., gave generations of South Village residents their caffeine fix. Above, the sign taken down from the closed store.
“Auggie’s,” at 107 Thompson St., gave generations of South Village residents their caffeine fix. Above, the sign taken down from the closed store.

Every week, it seems, The Villager runs an article on yet another favorite local business being forced to close due to rising rent. This week, for example, it’s Choga, a Korean restaurant / live music venue on Bleecker St. — just the latest local live music spot to be forced out of the Village area.

Some will shrug and say, “That’s life,” that it’s just the way things are in our free-market system. After all, New York has always been an intensely mercantile city, ever since its founding by the commerce-minded Dutch.

But in 2015, we’re now facing an undeniable crisis, one that Bill de Blasio focused on in his successful campaign for mayor, namely, the affordability crisis. Luckily, many New Yorkers can still manage to hold onto their apartments, though just barely, due to rent regulation — yet it’s a system that will eventually expire unless something is done to extend it.

No such protections exist for small businesses, however. And in fact, we’re told, it would be illegal to regulate commercial rents, though a form of such protections did exist at one point in the past.

In short, we’re at a turning point, a crossroads. The loss of beloved small businesses — replaced by drugstore chains, banks and Starbucks outlets — is just one of the most visible signs of how the city is rapidly becoming a place that only the super-wealthy can afford.

Mom-and-pop shops help give us our sense of community. They ARE our community.

As part of an effort to find solutions and to push them forward, The Villager and the Village Independent Democrats club are co-sponsoring a community forum on Thurs., March 5, at Judson Church, at 55 Washington Square South, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Spearheading the effort for the forum have been Sharon Woolums, a V.I.D. member whose series of columns on small businesses’ plight have run in The Villager, and Steve Null, known as “the collector” of information on all things small business.

The event’s name, “A Call to Action: Solutions to Save Our Small Businesses,” says it all — in that, it’s time for action. In that vein, there’s a reason why local politicians will not be among the panelists. Namely, legislation calling for arbitration for small business rent renewals — which advocates say is the key that could turn the tide — has sat idly in the City Council for decades. This bill would give merchants the right to negotiate “fair lease terms” and 10-year leases.

Advocates say it’s no coincidence that this bill, the Small Business Jobs Survival Act, has been stymied for so long. Real estate’s influence on New York politics has only been increasing during this time, while the bill has been prevented by successive City Council speakers from coming to the floor for a vote.

In an encouraging new initiative, however, the city is now asking Albany to pass legislation establishing a property tax credit for commercial landlords who “voluntarily” limit rent increases. This could also be part of the solution.

Panelists at the March 5 event will include Sung Soo Kim, president of the Korean-American Small Business Organization. Known as the “Godfather of Small Businesses,” he has been pushing for a form of the S.B.J.S.A. since 1993. Joining him will be Alfred Placeras, president of  NY State Federation of Hispanic Chambers of Commerce, and Jack Segan, a representative of Jetro, a major wholesale food merchandising operation that supplies 17,000 New York City delis, bodegas and restaurants, representing 10 percent of the city’s small merchants.

Also on the panel will be Mark Crispin Miller, president of N.Y.U. Faculty Against the Sexton Plan, an outspoken critic of overdevelopment and gentrification; and Jenny Dubnau, a member of the Artist Studio Affordability Project. Rounding things out will be Bob Perl, president of Tower Brokerage, who has been dubbed the “East Village’s counterculture landlord.” The moderator will be Lincoln Anderson, The Villager’s editor in chief.

After a period for the panel discussion, the forum will be opened up to audience questions.

Again, while politicians are encouraged to attend, this time the advocates will have the floor. There is a crisis facing our small businesses, and it’s one that has gone unchecked too long. It’s time for solutions.

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