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BY SAM SPOKONY | Many Chinatown small business owners believe that current emergency assistance programs led by the city, state and federal government are not enough to help them fully recover from the impact of Hurricane Sandy.
There is also general agreement between business owners, politicians and community leaders that Chinatown’s economy faces deep-seated problems — from difficulty attracting business and sustaining interest from tourists to dealing with a shrinking neighborhood — that existed long before the storm struck, and which cannot be adequately addressed by short-term solutions, such as emergency loans and general relief efforts.
After outcry from some business owners at an emergency relief forum held on Friday at the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association headquarters on Mott St., City Councilmember Margaret Chin called on Governor Cuomo to create a state emergency grant program for Chinatown’s small businesses.
“The thing we are hearing again and again is that our small businesses, many who are still paying off loans from 9/11, cannot get by with just loans,” Chin said in statement after sending a letter to the governor on Saturday. “They need grants. It would be tragic to see our small businesses, who survived and helped rebuild our community after 9/11, wiped out by Hurricane Sandy.”
A spokesperson for Chin said that the councilmember’s office had not yet received a reply to her letter to Cuomo. The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
The primary problem most small business owners have with applying for loans — currently offered by the U.S. Small Business Administration and the city’s Department of Small Business Services — is that they can’t afford to take on new debts, especially because they have already lost so much income after closing down for a week or more during Sandy’s aftermath. And for the many Chinatown businesses that rely heavily on the tourism industry, which to some degree had been suffering in that area long before the storm hit, the situation is already very grim.
A Chinatown gift shop owner who attended Friday’s forum — which was moderated by Congressmember Nydia Velazquez and included remarks by representatives of FEMA, S.B.A., S.B.S. and the New York City Economic Development Corporation — explained the current twofold desperation.
“It’s definitely cost me way over $10,000 in lost revenue, from being closed during the week after the storm, and now I can’t even make any sales because there’s virtually no foot traffic, no business,” said the merchant, who declined to give his name but said that his store is near the corner of Grand and Mulberry Sts.
At the C.C.B.A. forum, which was held to inform residents and local business owners about how to apply for loans, the politicians — Chin included — attempted to portray the situation as optimistically as possible.
“After 9/11, we were here, and we all came together — the community, the city, the state, the federal government — to help each other,” said Velazquez. “It’s not much different this time around. We’re here to make sure that the small businesses of our community become whole again.”
State Senator Daniel Squadron also appealed to a sense of collective resilience, even though he suggested that the current crisis would force Chinatown to solve some of its more entrenched problems.
“Don’t get frustrated, don’t give up,” Squadron said. “You’ve stuck with this community over the last 11 years, so stick with it again through the coming weeks and months.”
But plenty of business owners just weren’t buying those sentiments.
“This is bulls—,” said Wallace Lai, who owns two restaurants in Chinatown — one on Bayard St. and one on Division St. — both called Hong Kong Station. “These people just talk in circles about everything they’re going to do for us, but they can’t see the real future that’s coming for Chinatown if we don’t act now to fix the long-term problems.”
Sofia Ng, who runs Po Wing Hong, a specialty Chinese food market on Elizabeth St., explained her belief that politicians and other leaders need to do a better job of rebranding and highlighting Chinatown to tourists, especially as it recovers in the coming months.
“It’s hard to articulate what to do, because this is such an ongoing issue,” Ng said, “but there’s just no really attractive part of Chinatown that brings in tourism anymore. It’s not a place that people want to visit.”
When this reporter noted that those issues would be obviously difficult to address at a forum based mainly on short-term solutions, the business owners stressed that the long-term and short-term concepts should in fact be addressed together. Otherwise, they claimed, all the relief efforts would be basically worthless.
“They say they’re doing so much, but nothing’s actually getting better,” Lai said. “So I don’t care how much time they’re spending on loans and relief. It’s like, if you play soccer, I don’t care how good you are at handling the ball if you can’t score.”
And even though politicians like Chin and Squadron have done much over the past year — at the behest of many local residents — to decrease or at least strictly regulate the hotly debated intercity bus industry within Chinatown, Lai said he believes the buses are vital to the area’s economy, and should be brought back.
Wellington Chen, executive director of the Chinatown Partnership, has been an outspoken advocate of the intercity bus industry, constantly claiming that the millions of people it would bring to the area outweighs fears of danger and the complaints of local residents who are inconvenienced by the bus stops.
Last week, Chen’s position on that issue may have been indirectly validated. He explained that a Philadelphia tour bus company had recently learned of Chinatown’s post-storm struggles, and arranged to send a busload of people to the area just to shop and eat, thereby providing an economic boost.
“They sympathized with our story,” Chen said.
While that bus is from an independent company, and obviously very different than intercity buses like Megabus or Chinatown-based companies, Chen noted that it shows that one of Chinatown’s best hopes for the future may be through a revival of the economic outlets created by bus traffic or other similar sources.
Chen also had very pointed views regarding the Chinatown business owners who believe post-hurricane loans are not enough, and so are asking for grants and other services. He thinks the grants aren’t necessary.
“The American spirit is not about asking for handouts, and instead of relying on handouts we need to be practical and work with what we have,” Chen said.
Adding to that, he employed a characteristically offbeat analogy to suggest that business owners are better off banding together as a community than complaining about things they may never get.
“In a time of crisis, there will be people who focus on danger, and those who focus on opportunity,” Chen said. “Remember what they did on the Oregon Trail. They couldn’t just wait for the cavalry. When they went out in the wagons, and the Indians started shooting arrows at them, the pioneers formed a circle to defend themselves. That’s the American spirit.”