Push for stimulants as coffee shop closes


By Julie Shapiro

A bewildered group of Downtown workers gathered outside Klatch on Maiden Ln. Wednesday morning, peering through the grill that covered the closed coffee shop’s window.

The day before, marshals evicted Klatch owner Pam Chmiel for being three months behind on her rent. The local hangout was dark and empty on Wednesday, six years after Gov. George Pataki heralded its opening as a sign of Lower Manhattan’s recovery from 9/11. But for the workers accustomed to stopping at Klatch every morning, the disruption this week was less a political concern and more a personal one.

“People love this place,” said Judith Gould, an attorney who works near Klatch. “It’s the un-Starbucks.”

Gould said she felt at home at Klatch, where the workers knew her order — large decaf with soy — without having to ask.

Amanda Roberts, who works at a nonprofit, called Klatch “my office away from my office.” She had scheduled two interviews at Klatch for Wednesday and stood in front of the shop that morning scrolling through her BlackBerry, trying to figure out a Plan B.

“I don’t even know where to go,” she said. “I look forward to this every day.”

Chmiel, who lives near the cafe, sighed as she spoke to Downtown Express Tuesday, between a trip to her bank and the city’s business assistance office.

“I want to throw up,” she said. “I feel sick to my stomach. It’s awful — for the kids who work for me, and I have a family, and it’s awful for our block…. I’m just so shocked by this.”

The economic downturn, which knocked off 30 percent of Klatch’s business, is only the latest obstacle Chmiel has faced. Construction closed her block between Broadway and Nassau St. for nearly two years, including after a transformer exploded in February 2007, making it difficult for anyone to find the shop.

The Lower Manhattan Development Corp. has a $5 million grant program for small businesses below Canal St. on blocks closed by construction, but it only goes back to July 2007, right around the time Maiden Ln. reopened.

Chmeil and other Maiden Ln. businesses have been pressing the L.M.D.C. to expand the grant program to include them. Mike Murphy, L.M.D.C. spokesperson, said this week that the L.M.D.C. was looking into it and would have more information in a month or two.

“We want to give this money out,” Murphy said.

The L.M.D.C. has given $740,000 to 60 businesses since September. Businesses with 50 or fewer employees are eligible for grants of up to $25,000.

If the L.M.D.C. decides to give money to businesses on Maiden Ln., it will likely be too late for Klatch. Chmiel said she was always about six weeks behind on her rent, but she recently slipped to three months behind, or about $13,000, though her landlord said she owes more. She is negotiating with her landlord, DSA Management, though she is not sure she will be able to meet their terms.

Despite her financial troubles, Chmiel said her business had lately begun to creep back up again, and she had hoped the summer would bring in higher traffic.

“I was thinking, ‘Oh God, if we could just get [the L.M.D.C. grant], it could really catch me up,” Chmiel said. “It would help us [until the summer], and by then the economy could be back.”

Chmiel added, “Maybe this will make the L.M.D.C. pay attention.”

Ro Sheffe, chairperson of Community Board 1’s Financial District Committee, focused on the L.M.D.C. grant program at his committee meeting last week, which many Maiden Ln. businesses attended.

“These people are teetering right on the brink,” Sheffe said after the meeting and a few days before Klatch closed. “The L.M.D.C. has this huge pile of money they’re sitting on. We need to break the dam and get that money flowing immediately.”

Murphy said the L.M.D.C. is getting the money out as quickly as possible. L.M.D.C. staff helps businesses fill out the applications and does outreach on construction-blocked streets. The L.M.D.C. saw a recent uptick in applications and has given out nearly $400,000 in the past two months alone, Murphy said.

Across the street from Klatch, Peter Muscat stood behind the counter of Maiden Lane Wine & Liquor Wednesday morning. His wife attended Sheffe’s meeting and Muscat said he had just applied for the grant, even though his block is technically not eligible. Muscat has been working at the liquor store for 39 years and has owned it for the past 12, and he said business has never been so bad.

“I’m afraid it’s getting worse,” he said. “It seems to me the bottom isn’t reached yet. So I will keep my fingers crossed. I’m not a person to give up so easily.”

Muscat predicted, though, that more businesses on his block would soon go the way of Klatch.

One could be Maiden Heaven, a cafe next-door to Klatch. Chang Hyun, the owner, said she was down 35 to 40 percent and is trying to cut costs wherever she can. She may soon have to let workers go.

“People, they don’t have any money,” Chang said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

The L.M.D.C.’s program is the only in the city to give grants to businesses to offset the burden of public construction. But the program was not designed to compensate for the fallout of a global recession, which is hitting Lower Manhattan particularly hard as the neighborhood sheds jobs. While local residents and business owners are pushing the L.M.D.C. to allocate more than the current $5 million, Murphy said that is all that is available right now.

One of the most recent grant recipients is Craig Bero, who received $6,100 for his Cosmopolitan Cafe at W. Broadway and Chambers St. Bero opened the cafe 18 months ago, right around the time the Metropolitan Transportation Authority tore up the street to overhaul the subway station. Even when customers were able to find Bero’s cafe, he said the jackhammers ruined the quaint European atmosphere he was trying to create.

Bero’s L.M.D.C. grant arrived two weeks ago, at almost the same time as the construction finally finished and the barricades disappeared. Bero immediately bought forsythia and cherry plants, which are blossoming in front of his store. He also caught up on bills, signed on to the Taste of Tribeca schools fundraiser and bought extra food to throw a few celebratory parties for the neighborhood. The money allowed him to catch his breath and have some flexibility on his budget, he said.

“If they can help somebody else in a small situation like us,” Bero said, “particularly in these times, then: Wow.”