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Downtown's Small Businesses Still Hurting From 9/11, Owners Say

By Julie Shapiro | September 15, 2011 3:06pm

LOWER MANHATTAN — Small businesses that hung on after 9/11 Downtown are still struggling to keep their doors open, owners told the New York City Council Thursday.

"It's very difficult still to this day," said Doug Smith, owner of the World Trade Art Gallery and framing shop on Trinity Place, which lost half its business after the terrorist attacks.

"It still feels like we're recovering."

Smith said he and his wife worked six days-a-week to keep the 20-year-old shop afloat, and they hadn't taken a vacation in years. They could not afford to keep the seven employees they had prior to 9/11, so they now rely on unpaid relatives to fill in.

The biggest problem was that foot traffic still had not returned to the blocks just south of the World Trade Center, Smith said. And many of the shop's corporate clients have moved away or were spending less money, he added.

Smith spoke at a joint hearing of the Council's Small Business and Lower Manhattan Redevelopment committees Thursday morning, which focused on how Downtown businesses are faring 10 years after the attacks ripped apart the community.

"We don't want you to give up," Councilwoman Diana Reyna, chairwoman of the Small Business Committee, told the business owners.

Suellen Epstein, who has owned the play center Children's Tumbling on Murray Street, near Broadway, since 1978, said it has been frustrating to watch the neighborhood become less hospitable to small businesses over the past 10 years.

"So many small, independent businesses are gone, and in their place I'm seeing satellites for corporations," Epstein said.

Leah Berger, a TriBeCa resident who owns U.S. Telecom, a computer consulting business on Warren Street, near West Broadway, said she used to see a diverse mix of shops in the area around the World Trade Center.

Now, as the neighborhood has gone more upscale and residential, she sees only restaurants, nail salons and dry cleaners.

While Berger received some government grants after 9/11, she and others said they were frustrated by the difficulty of navigating the application process.

"If I needed to get a grant today, where do I go?" Berger said. "What's available to any small business?"

The answer was to visit NYC Business Solution's lower Manhattan center at 79 John St., said Andrew Schwartz, first deputy commissioner with the city's Department of Small Business Services.

Schwartz said the center offered information on dozens of grant and loan programs, along with business classes, entrepreneur assistance and recruiting help. The center does outreach by canvassing the neighborhood and working with local groups and officials, Schwartz said.

"We know we have more work to do," Schwartz said. "But we're trying to use every avenue we can."

Schwartz listed the many lower Manhattan recovery programs that are already underway, and he noted that the neighborhood now has more companies than it did before 9/11. However, Schwartz did not know how many small businesses lower Manhattan has gained, compared to how many it has lost, during the past 10 years.

Some ideas presented at Thursday's hearing included rent breaks for small businesses, fewer restrictions on truck loading and unloading in the Financial District and a 311-style hotline for small business questions.

Smith, the frame shop owner, said the single thing he was counting on was the redevelopment of the World Trade Center site, which he hoped will bring more people to his shop.

In the meantime, Smith said he would never want to move his business elsewhere.

"We love it here," he said. "It feels like home."