Economic Earthquake: Queens Businesses And Residents Brace For The Aftershock
Meant to reassure, Congress bailout package has fueled anger among some Queens residents.
By Joseph Orovic
Headlines called it “Black Monday.” Following suspended campaigns and late-night Congressional votes, a $700 billion bailout package did little to ease investors’ fears on Oct. 6. Fueled by speculation and panic, the Dow Jones dipped below 10,000 points for the first time in four years.
In the ensuing weeks, investors, business owners and members of our borough watched the roller coaster on Wall Street with growing uncertainty about their own financial futures. By all measures, the economy is in a steep decline.
Left in the wake of this mess, citizens and small business owners have begun to feel the pinch. Credit markets have dried up, leaving entrepreneurs like Bill Ross of Fresh Meadows at a loss for funding. As the owner of East Coast Hydroponics on the Horace Harding Expressway, Ross was recently denied a loan for what would have been his fourth business. He’s not too happy about it. Under his store’s awning, a blue sign with orange lettering read, “Bail-out People … Not Bank$.”
“I saw a little old lady begging with a sign saying, ‘Bail me out!.’ I just thought that was great,” Ross said. “Everybody loves my sign. They want to lynch the bankers.”
Ross isn’t the only one being denied money by lenders, according to the Queens Chamber of Commerce’s Executive Vice President Jack Friedman. The chamber hopes to overcome thinning credit markets by encouraging micro loans, which would give an infusion of up to $25,000 in capital to businesses.
But lackluster funding forces layoffs, which caused the unemployment rate within the City to jump from 5 to 5.8 percent in August, the biggest monthly increase in about 30 years. It adds up to a loss in tax revenue for the City and a headache for elected leaders.
Mayor Mike Bloomberg visited Queens on Sunday to endorse Sen. Frank Padavan at North Shore Towers in Floral Park, but 90 percent of the discussion dealt with the slowing economy.
Those in attendance expressed hope that the multi-billionaire Bloomberg would guide them through this time of economic turmoil.
“People are very worried and we’re going to have some very tough times and sadly there’s no easy answer to fix the economy,” he said. “No one is going to do it over night.”
While many residents had difficulty understanding the intricacies of Wall Street, Bloomberg said everyone would soon feel the effects of its decline.
“We have a problem around the world and it’s slowly moving down the chain,” he said. “If you have a lot of money but you decide not to buy a car, the car salesman doesn’t make a commission, the mechanic doesn’t get any fees, the automobile worker gets laid off and that’s a process that takes a while to work down.”
Retailers hope the Mayor is right – at least until after Christmas. Larger vendors have already begun marketing holiday items in the hopes of gauging of what Thanksgiving to Christmas will mean for their bottom line. Often, stores rely on that lone month for as much as 60 percent of the year’s sales.
In Queens, the retail industry appears to be holding steady. Damon Hemmerdinger, owner of the Shops at Atlas Park in Glendale, attended an industry roundtable Tuesday morning discussing the effects of the economy on City retailers.
“I think the message I heard is that people are being cautious,” Hemmerdinger said. “Deals are being done even though things are hard and slow right now.” He added it would be unusual for any large retail deals to take place right now.
In Atlas Park, new tenants are signed to join up over the coming months, though “there are a number of tenants who have put their national expansion on hold – some for an indeterminate amount of time, some through January,” Hemmerdinger said. One large national company he has been dealing with has cancelled all of its real estate committee meetings throughout the year. They are not even talking about doing deals, but are instead focusing their energy on other aspects of their business.
Stores feel overall trepidation when planning past December.
“I think really nobody knows what’s going on,” Hemmerdinger said.
He mentioned one Atlas Park tenant that for the last year, had fantastic numbers in terms of growth, but then went down 26 percent in sales in August only to bounce 5 percent in September.
That business’ gyration mimics Wall Street’s, causing panic among many relying on stocks for their retirement. Individuals setting aside money for their golden years have seen their investments take double-digit percentage losses.
The trick, according New York Community Bancorp Executive Vice President Andrew Kaplan, is to avoid panic.
“When you’re an investor, you need to be proactive and not reactive,” he said. “Market timing is dangerous. That’s speculating – not investing.”
According to Kaplan, incrementally “laddering” investments into and out of the stock market is the soundest means of staying afloat. Essentially, take the money you need and leave the rest. In the long term, he said, the market trends upward.
But for the near future, uncertainty may be the only constant.
Bloomberg reassured the crowd at North Shore that the City is already tightening its budget in order to absorb the drop in the markets. It would not, however, repeat the mistakes of past economic declines.
“We are going to have to find additional revenue sources and have to find ways to do more with less,” he said. “We are not going to walk away from our safe streets like they did in the 1970s. We’re not going to walk away from clean streets. We’re not going to walk away from our parks and schools. Having said that, I can tell you there will be a lot of people on the steps of City Hall protesting because we are going to have to force every city agency to do more with less.”
The City receives 25 to 30 percent of its revenue from Wall Street and the mayor was clear that times would be tough for all residents.
“When you’re planning a budget,” he said. “You should worry.”
Meanwhile, Hemmerdinger is confident in Atlas Park’s ability to weather the storm. It has marketed itself as a destination rather than a shopping venue. With its “town center” construction style, a movie theater, and a blend of specialty retail and services, it is far from an ordinary mall – a difference that Hemmerdinger said separates it from the pains that may hit big box malls.
“We are doing deals – and that is not true of everybody” in the industry, he said. “I think that is a sign of the industry’s view of the fundamental core of our project.”
Confidence like Hemmerdinger’s – not panic – is exactly what the economy needs, according to Kaplan, who said the dive in the markets is driven by panic.
“The economy will go through its cycle,” he said. “It has to. Once we see stability and rationality take over the market, it’ll turn around.”
Mayor Mike Bloomberg promised an audience at North Shore Towers painful budget cuts because of the floundering economy.