By Jon Schuppe
EAST HARLEM — In a couple of weeks, a second big-box store will open at East River Plaza, the cavernous new shopping center built with promises to provide hundreds of jobs to local residents.
But the community is bracing for more disappointment.
Early indications are that the new retail tenant, Best Buy, appears to be falling short of goals to take 60 percent of its new hires from East Harlem, neighborhood leaders say.
That apparent setback comes several weeks after a decision by the first tenant, Costco, to lay off 132 workers, leaving less than half the staff local.
“Early reports are that… it’s still going very slowly in terms of the percentage of local residents employed,” Community Board 11 Chairman Matthew Washington said.
Washington stressed that he has yet to see any official numbers from Best Buy or from STRIVE, a local non-profit that has been screening and referring local residents for possible employment at East River Plaza. But officials have heard some initial figures, and they are lower than what they’d hoped for Best Buy’s March 26 opening.
Representatives of Best Buy and STRIVE did not return calls this week.
Washington said the community board, which negotiated a “memorandum of understanding” with the mall’s developer outlining the 60 percent goal, is now looking for ways to improve the local recruitment process. It’s hard to say whether the goals were realistic because there’s no local development to use as a comparison.
“It’s hard to measure something when there’s no precedent,” Washington said.
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.
Overlooking the FDR Drive at East 117th Street, the massive gray-slab mall opened 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.
Costco recently told analysts that local residents aren’t shopping there as much as they expected.
Many residents have said that they haven't shopped at Costco because the plaza charges for parking. Tiago says it needs the money to pay off loans that financed the project.
Officials say they hope sales will improve when Best Buy opens, and when Marshalls and Target follow later this year.