By Jon Schuppe
MANHATTAN —When East Harlem welcomes Best Buy on March 26, less than a third of the people working there will be from the neighborhood, local officials say.
That’s a lower percentage than at Costco, the first retailer to open at East River Plaza, a shopping plaza that was built overlooking the FDR Drive last year with promises to take 60 percent of workers from East Harlem. Costco took 37 percent of its workers from the neighborhood before laying off scores of people.
"The fact of the matter is that we are at half of what we were looking for,” Community Board 11 Chairman Matthew Washington said.
He and other local leaders are looking for ways to improve the process through which local residents are recruited, trained and hired for jobs at East River Plaza. Several more retailers are scheduled to open there later this year, including Target and Marshalls, and are supposed to be hiring dozens of new workers.
It is unclear what happened at Best Buy, which only hired a total of 76 people for the new store, and is transferring many others from locations elsewhere.
Perhaps Best Buy wasn’t viewed as a good place to work, Washington said. Or maybe job candidates were scared off by Costco’s decision to lay off 132 workers in January, just two months after opening.
Or there’s a possibility that the goal of taking 60 percent of hires from the neighborhood, written into an agreement called a memorandum of understanding between the community board and the malls’ developers, simply wasn’t realistic.
“There are a lot of unknowns,” Washington said. “We can’t put a bulls-eye on the reason for the numbers being lower than what hoped for.”
The memorandum of understanding with Tiago, a partnership of Forest City Ratner Companies and Blumenfeld Development Group, was signed after the community board agreed to allow overnight truck deliveries at the shopping center.
That document wasn’t legally binding, but was important to a neighborhood with a 17 percent unemployment rate and where a quarter of residents use food stamps.
Recruiting work for East River Plaza has been done by STRIVE, a nationally known non-profit job-training firm with headquarters in East Harlem. Local officials are working with STRIVE to figure out how prospective job candidates are “falling through the cracks” after going through an initial screening process, Washington said.
Many of the candidates who stick around to fill out applications and go on interviews end up doing pretty well, according to data provided by STRIVE to Community Board 11. About 40 percent of East Harlem residents who interviewed for work at Best Buy got jobs there. But hundreds of people dropped out before getting to that point.
A similar scenario played out in the weeks leading up to Costo’s opening last November.
STRIVE CEO Eric Treworgy declined to comment, deferring to Community Board 11, which hired the firm for the East River Plaza Project.
Best Buy representatives haven’t returned calls.
East River Plaza opened on East 117th Street to citywide fanfare on Nov. 12 with Costco as its first tenant.
But the 105,000-square-foot store, which is about half the size of a typical Costco outlet, ended the holiday season with disappointing numbers. Costco cited those figures as the reason for the layoffs.
Part of the hiring problem, Washington said, was that there is no similar program in New York City to look at for comparison, or for tips.
“In New York, this really is the only thing like this, and we don’t have anyone to call for advice,” he said. “We are internally spinning our wheels to get it done.”